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Further Thoughts on the Ethics of Skepticism

by Daniel Loxton, Sep 10 2010

My recent post “The War Over 'Nice'” (describing the blogosphere's reaction to Phil Plait's “Don't Be a Dick” speech) has topped out at more than 200 comments. That's a lot by Skepticblog's standards. In addition, many further responses have reached me through Twitter, blog posts, email, and direct conversation.

I'm not quite sure how to feel about all that. Certainly I expected some controversy. (After all, I was writing about a controversy.) But quite a few of the critical responses take up a theme that seems… well, kind of strange to me. Many readers appear to object (some strenuously) to the very ideas of discussing best practices, seeking evidence of efficacy for skeptical outreach, matching strategies to goals, or encouraging some methods over others. Some seem to express anger that a discussion of best practices would be attempted at all. 

No Right or Wrong Way?

The milder forms of these objections run along these lines:

  • “Everyone should do their own thing.”
  • “Skepticism needs all kinds of approaches.”
  • “There's no right or wrong way to do skepticism.”
  • “Why are we wasting time on these abstract meta-conversations?”

In a few cases, this laissez faire theme rings sort of hollow. (It seems to me that some who make this argument themselves promote certain approaches over others.) Let's leave that aside.

More critical, in my opinion, is the implication that skeptical research and communication happens in an ethical vacuum. That just isn't true. Indeed, it is dangerous for a field which promotes and attacks medical treatments, accuses people of crimes, opines about law enforcement practices, offers consumer advice, and undertakes educational projects to pretend that it is free from ethical implications — or obligations.

Before we talk about that, let's first get this out of the way. No, there is no monolithic “one true way to do skepticism.” No, the skeptical world does not break down to nice skeptics who get everything right, and mean skeptics who get everything wrong. (I'm reminded of a quote: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”) No one has all the answers. Certainly I don't, and neither does Phil Plait. Nor has anyone actually proposed a uniform, lockstep approach to skepticism. (No one has any ability to enforce such a thing, in any event.)

However, none of that implies that all approaches to skepticism are equally valid, useful, or good. As in other fields, various skeptical practices do more or less good, cause greater or lesser harm, or generate various combinations of both at the same time. For that reason, skeptics should strive to find ways to talk seriously about the practices and the ethics of our field. Skepticism has blossomed into something that touches a lot of lives — and yet it is an emerging field, only starting to come into its potential. We need to be able to talk about that potential, and about the pitfalls too.

Professional Ethics

All of the fields from which skepticism borrows (such as medicine, education, psychology, journalism, history, and even arts like stage magic and graphic design) have their own standards of professional ethics. In some cases those ethics are well-explored professional fields in their own right (consider medical ethics, a field with its own academic journals and doctoral programs). In other cases those ethical guidelines are contested, informal, vague, or honored more in the breach. But in every case, there are serious conversations about the ethical implications of professional practice, because those practices impact people's lives. Why would skepticism be any different?

Over dinner at Dragon*Con last weekend, Skeptrack speaker Barbara Drescher (a cognitive pyschologist who teaches research methodology) described the complexity of research ethics in her own field. Imagine, she said, that a psychologist were to ask research subjects a question like, “Do your parents like the color red?” Asking this may seem trivial and harmless, but it is nonetheless an ethical trade-off with associated risks (however small) that psychological researchers are ethically obliged to confront. What harm might that question cause if a research subject suffers from erythrophobia, or has a sick parent — or saw their parents stabbed to death?

When skeptics undertake scientific, historical, or journalistic research, we should (I argue) consider ourselves bound by some sort of research ethics. For now, we'll ignore the deeper, detailed question of what exactly that looks like in practical terms (when can skeptics go undercover or lie to get information? how much research does due diligence require? and so on). I'd ask only that we agree on the principle that skeptical research is not an ethical free-for-all.

Likewise, when skeptics communicate with the public, we take on further ethical responsibilities — as do doctors, journalists, and teachers. We all accept that doctors are obliged to follow some sort of ethical code, not only of due diligence and standard of care, but also in their confidentiality, manner, and the factual information they disclose to patients. A sentence that communicates a diagnosis, prescription, or piece of medical advice (“you have cancer” or “undertake this treatment”) is not a contextless statement, but a weighty, risky, ethically serious undertaking that affects people's lives. It matters what doctors say, and it matters how they say it.

What ethical obligations do skeptics carry when we promote positions on medical matters, such as the safety of vaccines or the efficacy of an alleged treatment for cancer? Does having no medical expertise whatsoever give us greater freedom to shoot from the hip — or require us to take even greater care?

What ethical burden do we bear when we suggest that a company is crooked, or assert that someone's deepest beliefs are mistaken? What are our responsibilities when we suspect that a product may be bogus, or imply publicly that an individual is a con artist, or assert that a claim is right or wrong? These are clearly complicated, situational, value-laden questions. And yet, it seems to me that the answer is not “no burden at all.”

Grassroots Ethics

It happens that skepticism is my professional field. It's natural that I should feel bound by the central concerns of that field. How can we gain reliable knowledge about weird things? How can we communicate that knowledge effectively? And, how can we pursue that practice ethically?

At the same time, most active skeptics are not professionals. To what extent should grassroots skeptics feel obligated to consider the ethics of skeptical activism?

Consider my own status as a medical amateur. I almost need super-caps-lock to explain how much I am not a doctor. My medical training began and ended with a couple First Aid courses (and those way back in the day). But during those short courses, the instructors drummed into us the ethical considerations of our minimal training. When are we obligated to perform first aid? When are we ethically barred from giving aid? What if the injured party is unconscious or delirious? What if we accidentally kill or injure someone in our effort to give aid? Should we risk exposure to blood-borne illnesses? And so on. In a medical context, ethics are determined less by professional status, and more by the harm we can cause or prevent by our actions.

Similarly, police officers are barred from perjury, and journalists from libel — and so are the lay public. We expect schoolteachers not to discuss age-inappropriate topics with our young children, or to persuade our children to adopt their religion; when we babysit for a neighbor, we consider ourselves bound by similar rules.

I would argue that grassroots skeptics take on an ethical burden as soon as they speak out on medical matters, legal matters, or other matters of fact, whether from platforms as large as network television, or as small as a dinner party. The size of that burden must depend somewhat on the scale of the risks: the number of people reached, the certainty expressed, the topics tackled.

And so, I pass the question to you. What are the ethics of skepticism? It's a question that can't be answered in a day, or on a single thread; but skeptics should, I think, confront that question on a continual basis. To do that, we need to solve a problem revealed by the “don't be a dick” controversy and the resulting war over nice. Somehow, skeptics need to find ways to talk seriously about skeptical practices — good and bad, effective and ineffective, right and wrong — without tearing the field apart in the process.

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196 Responses to “Further Thoughts on the Ethics of Skepticism”

  1. badrescher says:

    At the risk of trigging a deep-seated erythrophobia, well said.

  2. Beelzebud says:

    The Woo-Peddlers, UFO nuts, truthers, climate change deniers, antivaxxers, religious extremists, all have one thing that gives them a great advantage to skeptics and critical thinkers.

    They go lock-step with the herd, and never worry about what others think of them.

    Food for thought.

    • Mike McRae says:

      To me, this is a key matter that lies behind many a skeptic’s ethical code – ‘they do it, so what does it matter if we do?’. One can deceive, hyperbolise, insult and ridicule in the satisfaction that the mythical ‘other side’ is perceived to be far worse.

      Of course, it relies on a false dichotomy, as if people belong to one or the other, where one is good and the other evil. In this fallacy, there is always the fall-back tu-quoque argument.

      Personally, I think it is even more reason to have personal ethics clearly justified, lest we are drawn into accepting that two wrongs might somehow cancel out to make a right.

      • Beelzebud says:

        I never said it was fine to deceive.

        My point was that the woo-peddlers don’t get bogged down in meta-arguments within their communities. I’ve seen more wasted time on this topic this year, than anything relevant to skeptical thinking. How much time are skeptics going to waste, arguing in a circular firing squad about each other’s free speech?

        Like it or not, there will always be confrontational people. You aren’t going to get a group of people as varied as skeptics are, and make them all agree to “be nice”. It’s a pipe dream, and a waste of time.

        While we debate the finer points of being a dick vs being nice, the woo-peddlers are humming right along, making the case that all climate scientists are hoaxers, and that the earth was 6000 years old.

      • badrescher says:

        Wow, did you read THIS post, or are you just commenting on the topic in general?

        Also, are you so entrenched in the paranormal community that you can accurately describe what they do and do not discuss among themselves? Not that the two communities are comparable – they aren’t.

      • Beelzebud says:

        Yeah but I don’t see anyone arguing that skeptics should be unethical, so i addressed the pie fight going on.

      • Beelzebud wrote,

        It’s a pipe dream, and a waste of time. While we debate the finer points of being a dick vs being nice, the woo-peddlers are humming right along…

        I’d note here that the folks working on these issues of ethics and practices are in many cases also doing practical work on primary research and science outreach. Phil Plait’s Bad Universe TV series (announced just days after his DBAD speech!) is reaching mass media audiences in multiple countries. That’s not too shabby. (On a smaller scale, my own Evolution book is reaching tens of thousands of homes, schools, and libraries — as does Junior Skeptic.)

        Speaking for myself, discussions like this are something extra that I take on in addition to the main body of my work. I’m still making stuff and solving mysteries, but the topics of ethics and best practices are important enough that I’m willing to devote some nights and weekends to the conversation.

      • TonyaK says:

        “My point was that the woo-peddlers don’t get bogged down in meta-arguments within their communities.”

        Actually, I have seen this happen many, many times in the ghost-hunting community.

      • Mike McRae says:

        I don’t see it as bogged down at all, let alone a waste of time. People who don’t want to engage in the discussion don’t have to.

        Discussing effective outreach in an effort to turn the rationalist culture to one of critical thinking about communication is probably the most important thing skeptics can do right now. Most seem to give little thought as to whether they’re truly effective or not, making blind assertions in place of critical evaluation. You’re obviously concerned about challenging ‘woo peddlers’, yet not concerned enough to care how this is done, so long as there is an impression of success. Not unlike a placebo for communication, really – we don’t care if it does work or not, so long as it feels like it does.

        Yes, there will always be confrontational people. So? There will always be woos – I presume by your logic that means there should be no outreach whatsoever?

    • Drew says:

      The initial responses to this comment were great, but I should mention that I’m pretty sure this statement is also just false. I’ve known a number of people into woo etc, and there is always a lot of infighting in those communities. I don’t have any data, obviously, but my impression is that the skeptical community is actually much better than most woo communities I’ve encountered.

    • Rhinanthus says:

      The implication is that such traits give them some unfair advantage. It doesn’it – it is their Achilles Heel. The skeptical community gains strength by continually arguing the facts while avoiding ad hominum attacks or foaming at the mouth. Remember that the real audience isn’t the nutcase to whom you are responding but rather the multitude of others, mostly more reasonable than the nutcase, who listen in. When the lurkers hear the nutcase raving and insulting everyone, while you debunk the argument with facts and civility, the lurkers will give you the credit.

  3. Mike Meraz says:

    This is a great post, Daniel. In fact, I’ve enjoyed all your posts tremendously. I’m not much of a fan of forums or long comment threads so my voice might be scarce in this arena. But I had to jump in on this one to say… well said!

  4. tudza says:

    The police may be barred from perjury, but they will lie to get information. So says a real policeman in that swell video by a law professor and a policeman about never talking to the police.

  5. As someone who aspires towards being an Ethicist: well said.

  6. This is a topic that I end up thinking a lot about. As someone who engages in public skeptical outreach as a non-expert, I often wonder about the ramifications of offering my own opinions. I usually get around that by asking questions of the experts rather than making statements. However, simply offering a controversial expert up as a show guest could be considered implied agreement with their work; as a non-scientist, I don’t have the background to evaluate their claims. This is hazy territory for me, and I appreciate all the direction I can get. Thanks for the post.

    • Al Morrison says:

      Desiree, I think you are selling yourself, and other well-read, well-prepared journalists short. You may not have amassed the thousands of hours of study required to hold an expert’s authority on a given topic; nonetheless, you do have an informed, researched position that does have value and the power to sway opinion. It is important anyone, skeptic or otherwise, recognizes, and accepts responsibility for anything she posts, blogs, podcasts or airs publicly. You may not consider yourself an authority–others, your audience for instance, do.

      I am a regular listener to the Skeptically Speaking podcast. Certainly you do not challenge the expert opinions of your guests. What your show does is make their opinions, and the topics of their opinions and expertise accessible. Does this imply tacit approval on your part? No. What it implies is you think their opinions and the topics of their opinions are worth consideration. In the context of a radio show titled “Skeptically” Speaking, expert skeptical guests do not pose an ethical conundrum. We listeners should expect our unchallenged beliefs to be challenged.

      The biggest ethical concern is vetting a guest carefully. Inadvertently allowing a quack or charlatan on the show, and not exposing her because you are unwilling to challenge her expert authority would be an ethical failure. Why? Because you are well-read and well-prepared, and your listeners come to rely on you to ensure your guests are experts and authoritative. Your opinions are valuable and valued for different reasons than the opinions of your experts. You are not expected to be an expert; nor are you held to the same level of responsibility as the expert for their opinions and research. We rely on your journalistic integrity, and hold you to the very best standards to which an ethical journalist can aspire: openness, integrity, due diligence, and opinions and anecdotes which illustrate and illuminate the opinion of the expert. Only if you fail to uphold these standards will you breach ethics.

      • Thanks for this, Al. Vetting is definitely a concern. I search for articles opposing the guest’s work or position, and integrate that as critical questions into the interview, and when I’m really out of my element, I host a debate instead. But there have been shows where I initially thought that there was sufficient evidence to consider a guest’s position, but it somehow didn’t translate on-air, and their claims came across as spectacularly unsubstantiated. When that happens, I tend to feel that, at best, I didn’t give the audience enough to work with to come to an informed decision about the material, and at worst, offered up someone that could be perceived as a a quack. As someone who basically stumbled on to journalism, I’m not sure if these are “ethical” concerns or just me trying to produce the best product I can. Are “good intentions” enough? I’m usually of the opinion that they are not. And that’s also why I don’t consider Loxton’s posts navel-gazing. These discussions help me immensely. :)

  7. I write about this in an upcoming post for another blog, but if I have to be professional and nice to people who beat and assault women and children, then you can avoid screaming at people who believe the world is 6,000 years old.

    • steelsheen11b says:

      Why would you have to be professional towards f’ing scumbags?

      • I imagine it’s because some people have a professional responsibility to do so. The entire system of legal defense is based on this – defense attorneys are obligated to mount the most effective defense they can, even on behalf of a scumbag, and they have to keep their mouths shut about anything revealed under the umbrella of attorney-client confidentiality.

        The same would go for psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and other professional counselors who don’t get to choose their patients.

        It may feel good to rail angrily at scumbags, but it doesn’t get the job done, in law or in counseling.

  8. Nicely said, but it seems to boil down to the rather trivial point of “we should attempt to act ethically?” Was someone really arguing the counter point?

  9. Tyro says:

    Is it too much to ask for examples of people who are “tearing the field apart”, or even a hypothetical example? Tying this to the DBAD, you just *know* that people are going to ask, and for good reason.

    Personally, I think that speaking sceptically about medical matters is ethical and I have a hard time thinking of cases where it wouldn’t be. Calling out charlatans and quacks can save lives or at least get people to genuine medicine and I have a hard time picturing how our tone or dickishness could change that.

    So colour me puzzled. What’s the big dilemma or question here?

    • Ticktock says:

      When Women Thinking Free handed out fliers to counteract the antivaccine rally in Chicago, they should never have said “Receiving vaccines is completely safe”. There are risks to receiving vaccines, although they are small compared to the much greater risks of widespread disease.

      WTF has since admitted that they regret the error, and that’s better ethics than I can ask from their antivaccine counterparts. However, this is an example of the risks that amateur skeptics take when confronting medical topics for which they are not educated.

      I run into the same risks on my blog because I write about issues such as vaccines and other science related topics. I’m not a scientist, just an advocate promoting the science-based point-of-view.

      I take Daniel’s message very seriously, but I sometimes wonder how I can manage to promote science ethically without making errors. Daniel prefers perfection among skeptics, but I’m not sure if we can offer it. How can we be skeptical activists and spread our message responsibly? That’s a question I struggle with and for which I don’t have an easy answer.

      • Tyro says:

        When talking colloquially, I think it’s fine to say things like that. They’re far safer than all of the other things we think of as “perfectly safe”. Hell, people die in elevators and you’d have to be a monumentally pedantic prick to complain if someone said they were perfectly safe, and elevators don’t *save* lives in the process.

        I don’t know the details but I’d guess retracting that claim was based more on the political strengths of the anti-vaxxers and the hair-splitting of “allies” rather than on the correctness of their statement.

      • Ticktock says:

        We open ourselves up as targets if we don’t take our wording seriously. I think this shrug-shoulders-and-sigh approach is fine for some people, but I disagree and think we should hold ourselves to a higher standard.

      • Tyro says:

        I don’t mean to say I’m shrugging my shoulders, I’m saying that I genuinely believe that they were correct. Could they publish in a journal with that phrasing? Possibly not (depends on the journal :) ) but who cares, they aren’t in a journal, they’re talking to a broad general audience. In that context we understand that “never” really means “rarely”, “totally” really means “often”, and “completely safe” means “safe except for some fringe cases where the possible complications are minor and acceptable.” That’s why I can say “driving compact cars is perfectly safe” when talking to someone who is trying to convince me to buy some land yacht because they’re heavier and “safer”.

        I’m not a shruggy, I’m just saying that communication has a context and it should be obvious to everyone what that context is. Sure there’s some contingent who will pick and fret over some academic-grade quality of accuracy, the same people who comb through Al Gore’s talks, but these people are missing the boat.

        Sorry dude, I think this attitude of yours is part of the problem. You’re attacking those people who are out there helping, even if you think you have good intentions.

      • Ticktock says:

        The intentions of the individual are not important. What matters is whether they are correct in their actions and deeds. Just because someone is a skeptic doesn’t mean that they are above criticism, and it’s a “with us or against us” fallacy to say that pointing out factual and ethical errors is helping the enemy.

        I’m in no way supporting the Taliban if I condemn my home country for firing a smart bomb at a wedding celebration. In this hypothetical scenario, USA deserves criticism, whether this smart bomb attack was a mistake or not. Should it matter that the person who called in the attack, the superior who approved the attack, and the pilot who dropped the bomb are all good people who want to bring democracy to Afghanistan? No, all of those people down the chain should have been absolutely positive before firing that missile.

        Here’s another scenario of an ethical lapse of judgment… how about when Mark Edwards wrote an article on this very blog that included the phone number of the psychic he was criticizing? I was appalled by his lapse in ethics, and yet other commenters defended his stunt as a funny prank. No, that sort of behavior is unethical, and we should call it out when we see it.

      • Tyro says:

        I was appalled by his lapse in ethics, and yet other commenters defended his stunt as a funny prank. No, that sort of behavior is unethical, and we should call it out when we see it.

        That’s the first example of unethical behaviour I’ve seen.

        Could this entire post seriously be about that? Like DBAD, this sounds like a huge strawman.

      • Ticktock says:

        Daniel phrased it as a question. What are the ethics of skepticism? He’s asking for a conversation about whether we have mutually similar standards.

        The one or two examples I provided of ethical mistakes by skeptics are enough to negate your accusation of straw man, but I’m sure Daniel was thinking of others. Personally, I can think of a few more that I’ve experienced myself, but singling people out doesn’t contribute to a positive conversation.

      • John Greg says:

        Tyro, I understand your points clearly, but saying “In that context we understand that ‘“never”’ really means ‘“rarely”’, ‘“totally”’ really means ‘“often”’, and ‘“completely safe”’ means ‘“safe except for some fringe cases where the possible complications are minor and acceptable”’ is clearly an assumption without legs. Yes, some people would make those assumptions that you claim, but many would not.

        I think the argument for precision in diction is of the utmost importance, and is rarely ever presented strongly enough. There are many so-called skeptical blogs where far, far too many people, both general commentators and the host posters, post under the remarkabley naive and flawed assumption that “I can use whatever words I want, regardless of their lack of accuracy or precision because people will know what I mean anyway even if what I say is not precisely what I mean”.

        Balls to that. Without monumentally pedantic pricks language becomes vague, obfuscated, and far too general to maintain critical import and accuracy.

        Tyro said:

        … communication has a context and it should be obvious to everyone what that context is….

        Perhaps it should be obvious, in your opinion, but it is not always so. You seem to forget not only the vast differences in meaning from culture to culture that words can take on, especially when we are talking about colloquialisms. Far too many Americans forget that we do not all live in the United States, and not all commentators have English as their native tongue.

      • Tyro wrote,

        When talking colloquially, I think it’s fine to say things like that. [Vaccines are] far safer than all of the other things we think of as “perfectly safe.” Hell, people die in elevators and you’d have to be a monumentally pedantic prick to complain if someone said they were perfectly safe…

        I don’t think it would be at all pedantic to disclose the risks of elevator riding when the risks of riding elevators is the topic at hand. People who are concerned about vaccines are specifically interested in the risks of vaccination — and specifically worried that the true risks are being concealed. The problem skeptics face is that inaccurate information about vaccine safety is widely publicized. Skeptics can’t ethically combat misinformation with further misinformation.

        Nor is this an academic distinction. Imagine that I used the inaccurate claim that vaccination was risk-free to convince a billion people to vaccinate their children. Well, some of those children would have serious (even lethal) reactions.

      • badrescher says:

        You’re far too nice, Daniel.

        Frankly, I find the characterization of this incident as “hair-splitting” and the description of what was said as “correct” rather disgusting.

      • Tyro says:

        Just how safe must something be before you think it’s accurate to say that it’s “perfectly safe”? Is a 1 in 1,000 chance of a fever “safe”? 1 in 10 million? 1 in 100 trillion? Must it be absolutely free of any conceivable side-effect under any circumstance or can we all admit that nothing can ever meet this ridiculous standard? If you have the sense to admit that “perfectly safe” really means “a very high degree of safety”, we’re just left to discuss where that degree lies which is a pedantic quibble as I said, rather than some horrible ethical lapse as you’re painting it.

        I used the “never” example for a reason: the dictionary absolute, yet we all use it to mean “rare” because we understand there are always exceptions that aren’t worth mentioning. I’m told that the French use ‘jamais’ to really mean “never” but we English don’t consider anything to be absolute. Even “unique” which is one-of-a-kind by definition is regularly used as “quite unique” or “fairly unique”, no doubt causing these same pedants to send off nastygrams.

        So I applaud your quixotic goal to redefine English words to assume some absolutist ideals where everything is precise and “safe” means “absolutely no chance of sniffles under any conceivable circumstance”, even you must admit that this does not reflect the language people use. When we communicate with the public, we must speak their language and understand that words will be interpreted in that context. If anyone is being Humpty Dumpty and using words with a private definition, it would be those who want to argue “perfectly safe” means some impossibly absolutist, mathematically empty set of conceivable risks.

      • NightHiker says:

        “If you have the sense to admit that “perfectly safe” really means “a very high degree of safety””

        Who is trying to redefine English, you say??? And you really are still trying to argue about ethics while spilling such drivel? Give me a break.

      • badrescher says:

        I don’t think that Daniel is asking for perfection or talking about mistakes that people make. He’s talking about attitudes that people have that these things don’t matter.

        The fact that you take ethics seriously and recognize that we have to be careful about what we say and how we say it (otherwise, we ARE the enemy) demonstrates that you are not the person he’s trying to convince.

        We don’t offer perfection. We offer responsibility and professionalism. How? by considering these issues as you are here.

      • I think this is about right. I teach ethics, and often have to remind my students – and myself – that ethics is not about being perfect. It’s about being aware of and responsive to the concrete details of the situation in which one finds oneself, and imaginative in relation to other people. How does this situation look from their point of view? What are the likely consequences of saying *this* as opposed to *that*.

        I also remind my students in professional ethics classes that doing the right thing in a given context usually involves paying careful attention to *what* is said and *how* it is said. I’ve been in a situation in which I became aware that the next words out of my mouth would either destroy or strengthen a relationship. I spoke very, very carefully.

        Incidentally, just yesterday I was talking with students in my engineering ethics class about barriers to clear thinking in ethics, starting with dogmatism. I asked them for examples of unreflective dogma. One of my students, who’d seen James Randi at DragonCon, said, “skepticism.”

      • Julie says:

        “However, this is an example of the risks that amateur skeptics take when confronting medical topics for which they are not educated.”

        Actually, WTF has a pediatrician active on their board who is (obviously) very well educated when it comes to vaccine safety.

    • Leo says:

      Promoting scientifically sound medicine over quackery is ethical, but sometimes the state of the science changes. If we’re not current with the literature (very few of us are) and we make broad claims (or we’re broadly dismissive) then we run the risk of doing harm ourselves.

      For instance, in general, taking supplements isn’t necessary. Most people don’t need them. But very recently, scientists are thinking that maybe even those who are outdoors a lot don’t get enough Vitamin D because we’re not exposed to enough sunlight. Now, this isn’t as big a deal as many alt-med practitioners would have people believe, and the science is somewhat unsettled at this point but it would be wrong to just scream and shout that all supplements are worthless. Yet I have seen skeptics doing just that.

      So the ethical thing to do is if you’re going to make medical claims (or debunk them) is to make sure you’re either well versed in the research, or relying on someone who is, and to be conservative in the claims you are promoting or debunking. That doesn’t mean you can’t speak forcefully, just that you need to know your stuff and present the full story, not just what neatly fits into the debunking hole.

      • Tyro says:

        I think we have to balance speaking out about problems we’ve identified now with the recognition that we’re always learning. But that’s not excuse to remain silent when we have got good evidence.

        The position that supplements are essentially a waste of money and may be harmful and that a varied diet is the best way to remain healthful is still solid, even while people look at individual supplements (and Vit D is still an open topic of research). People may err on either side but is that such a big problem?

      • Mike McRae says:

        I’d say the ethics of scientific communication depends. It’s not quite so cut and dried as that.

        I’m currently studying for my master of medical anthropology, which includes analysing the impact of communicating medicine in a global perspective. It involves breaking down the question of health, definitions, cultural impact etc. It’s so easy to get focused on a purely biomedical definition of health and disease in our community that we’re oblivious to the fact there could possibly be any other way of looking at it. This means a lot of health outreach methods are not only doomed to fail right from the start, but risk being unethical in how they impact on variations of social morals of different cultures. We risk treating ethics and morals as objective laws rather than subjective concepts that evolve within a cultural context.

        (BTW, if anybody is interested in understanding what I mean by health definitions in anthropology, I recommend reading Young, A. (1976), Some Implications of Medical Beliefs and Practices for Social Anthropology, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 78, No. 1 pp. 5-24)

    • Max says:

      How about Skeptoid listener feedback episodes. Instead of respectfully responding to serious criticisms, Brian Dunning gets entertainment out of ridiculing his critics, often misinterpreting their message in the process.

      On Skepticblog, Brian posted an angry email he received, including the sender’s name and employer. Granted, the sender was being a dick first, saying he hopes Brian gets run over by a truck, but this raises the question at what point does Brian decide to not respect a critic’s privacy.

      • badrescher says:

        Whether or not to reveal information about an author is always an interesting ethical question. I do not believe that people who send unsolicited email retain any rights to privacy, but that alone is not usually enough to make me feel comfortable revealing their identity.

        There is one clear line, though (again, IMO): unsolicited email containing death threats should be published in their entirety and with all information possible.

  10. Joshua Hunt says:

    Thank you for all of your posts, Daniel! Keep up the good work!

  11. David Glück says:

    Great post, Daniel. Now I must go think some more…

  12. Nigel says:

    I must be dense today. I would hope it is obvious that skeptics professional/amateur or otherwise should not lie, cheat, or steal and be transparent with any perceived conflicts of interest. I cannot imagine anyone seriously advocating the opposite. If a skeptic, whether individual or in group, makes an error after a good faith effort of investigating a position any error ought to be fessed to and appropriate correction(s) made.

    If a skeptical group wants its membership to follow an ethical canon to be a member that’s fine with me otherwise self group policing seems to be it.

    • Ticktock says:

      You’ve over-simplified ethics to summarize it as “don’t lie, cheat, steal, or have undisclosed COI”. There are more subtle forms of ethical misconduct that I think are at the heart of this article, such as whether it’s ethical to moderate or delete any comments that are critical of the original article. How would you feel if you were to encounter this sort of censorship on a skeptical blog? Some might debate that the comments are unconstructive and disruptive, others might say that it’s important everyone be free to speak their mind.

      • Nigel says:

        There’s the rub. Once one delves into more nuanced fact patterns then I do not see how such situations are solved without someone refereeing. The problem is with skeptics that no such governing body exists. There are no licensed skeptics. The best that can be said in general is not to lie, cheat, etc.

        Example: Is it was correct for Ms. X to hold herself as a homeopath on some alt. med forum to get the skinny to research an article, I am sure both sides can be argued. Is it lying or is it deep cover research? There is no panel set up to send Ms. X a strongly worded reprimand or letter of exoneration.

        Now, if she belongs to Skepgal and the group says that was wrong we’re kicking you out or forcing you apologize, that’s fine with me. There is a big practical issue with how skeptics operate to make it a practical to discuss. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc all have large infrastructures to deal with all kinds of issues that constantly pop up in their unique forms. Skeptics don’t.

        To me we’re stuck with broad rules of thumb applied on a case by case basis.

      • The problem is with skeptics that no such governing body exists. … we’re stuck with broad rules of thumb applied on a case by case basis.

        Some of us do face editorial or curatorial standards (such as those of my editors at Skeptic, Michael Shermer and Pat Linse), which may include ethical and legal oversight (as from a board, or mandate, or official policies). Otherwise, you’re quite right that grassroots skeptics have to feel their way along. In my opinion, this is why discussions like this are important. If talking things over as a community and developing social norms is the best we can do, that’s all the more reason to do it.

  13. Jani Kotakoski says:

    On-going discussion on the “dickiness” of the skeptics seems to neglect the under-laying reason for it.

    For a scientist, as myself, it seems obvious. We are trained to tear each other apart. That’s what science is all about.

    When we get a manuscript to review from our peers, we do our best to find each and every weakness in it, point it out, and tell the writers to try harder to polish their theory and correct the mistakes, if possible. Sometimes the theories are so bad that they are “Not even wrong!” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Not_even_wrong]

    Some referee reports are very rude, and sometimes the ‘questions’ after a conference presentation are set to demolish the speaker. Some scientists seem to even try to do this simply to show their power (or to protect their own old theories).

    Hence, many of us expect everyone else is (a) ready for similar criticism if they present their own ideas and (b) expecting others to do their best in tearing their arguments apart.

    As an anecdote, I should confess that my wife accuses me of doing exactly this when we disagree on something. And that’s with a person I’m deeply in love with. Imagine what happens with people we don’t even like.

    As Carl Sagan writes in The Demon-Haunted World (p. 31, paperback): “But there’s one side [in science] that is really striking to the outsider, and that is the gauntlet of criticism considered acceptable or even desirable.”

    Randy Olson joins the choir in his recent Don’t Be Such a Scientist” by noting that (paperback, p. 99): “[W]hen I was a graduate student – we learned to write first drafts of our scientific papers, give them to colleagues, and then eagerly await their comments. The more red ink on the manuscript when it came back, the better. The only thing that would ever cause anger would be someone not covering the manuscript in red ink, suggesting they were just lazy.”

    In fact, I know many scientists who have earned their reputations by being the harshest critiques of the work of their students, colleagues and even of themselves.

    In my opinion, this indicates where the problem is. Scientists are dicks to each other (for people judging from outside). That’s the way of the scientific mind in the scientific setting. And for many scientists, there is no other setting. They always talk the science talk. Olson felt that the topic was worth of a book.

    Judging from the discussion after Phil Plait’s talk, and from other facts like Olson’s book, internet has changed things for the scientists.

    We aren’t any longer simply talking to ourselves. Now we have a broader audience, and it’s time to learn how to communicate with it effectively.

    It’s good to have the discussion on. I wish as many scientists as possible will pay attention. This is not just about UFOs and the Bigfoot.

    • Max says:

      Don’t be a dick in science either. It makes science look like politics.

      • Jason Loxton says:

        Certainly, science proceeds by unrestrained critical testing of ideas (or should in theory, anyhow), and I both dread and look forward to the red ink that my submitted papers are returned with. But, science has plenty of “dickishness” as well, i.e., jerkiness that serves no purpose at all, and every discipline knows well who its dicks are (and supervisors warn their grad students in advance of question periods).

        Demolishing a fellow (honest) scientist’s poster, presentation, or paper is fine; calling it “not even wrong” or an “embarrassment” or telling them they’ve chosen the wrong profession, are “witless wankers,” etc. is both completely unhelpful and, as Daniel has argued, morally wrong, since it gratuitously hurts real people.

      • Jason Loxton says:

        Addendum: While catchy, I think that “don’t be a dick” somewhat confuses this whole discussion. If ‘dick’ is defined as someone who hurts feelings, etc., then sometimes we should be dicks, obviously. Even more, sometimes we are *morally obligated* to be dicks.

        But that’s not what’s at issue here.

        The sentiment Dan and Phil are getting at is much better expressed thus: “Don’t be gratuitously mean.” This applies to skeptical communication, science, and life in general.

      • Jani Kotakoski says:

        I definitely agree. There’s no point in being mean to others. Neither in science or elsewhere.

        However, quite a few very good scientists (at least in my own field, physics) are rather antisocial. They tend to have strong opinions and not to care about hurting feelings, which may lead to poor selection of words. You gave some great examples.

        Within science we usually understand that what is being attacked are the ideas, not the people (regardless of how it’s put). Of course, sometimes a nasty referee report can hurt, but we’ll get over it.

        I just hope the rudeness doesn’t spread out to the public discussion, where people tend to take things on a more personal level.

    • Rhinanthus says:

      As a professional scientist and as a journal editor I can say that when I weigh the reviews that I receive for a manuscript I always discount a review from a “dick”. On a few occasions I have ignored such reviews completely and simply got new reviews from more professionally minded scientists. The purpose of a scientific review is to find the strengths and weakness of the science and never the scientist. I suspect that the public tends to do the same thing in popular debates.

  14. TonyaK says:

    Daniel said, “But in every case, there are serious conversations about the ethical implications of professional practice, because those practices impact people’s lives. Why would skepticism be any different?”

    EXACTLY! These conversations are important, and I have a very difficult time understanding why anyone could think otherwise. Discussing the potential impact of our actions, both positive and negative, is not only worthwhile, but necessary. It is NOT a waste of time. It is meant to maximize the positive benefits of our actions and minimize the potential for harm.

    I truly don’t understand why this even has to be an issue, because in my mind, it is a part of working to promote critical thinking and good decision making in others. Why bother doing something at all if you aren’t going to consider best practices and ethical issues??

  15. Wendy Hughes says:

    Not being a scientist nor an educator, I am truly a grassroots skeptic. I just love the hobby… but the ethics of grassroots skepticism is in my very Facebook friendships. One of my FB friends is a longtime friend with whom I simply agree to disagree. She is a chiropractor… and she knows I think her practice is not real medicine; she knows I am a skeptic. When I asked her about it several years ago, she said she just likes making people feel better… Meanwhile, this past week she posted on her FB status update, “A survey analysis published in the June 2010 issue of the ‘Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine’ revealed that 60% of the U.S. Adults utilizing CAM (complimentary and alternative medicine) therapies for back pain reported “a great deal” of benefit. Chiropractic was used most frequently (74 percent of respondents) and had the highest success rate (66% reporting significant benefit.)” and I was a little bit annoyed.

    There is a dickish part of me that wants to post a comment about chiropractic… it seems to me there was something from Quackwatch, about Kaiser Permanente recently… on her thread. But that’s just not the relationship I have with her. I don’t want to start a feud… even though I am already thought of as the neighborhood skeptic. Maybe having posted this message on Daniel’s thread, I am talking myself into it. Just because I am not a scientist nor a doctor, it is my job, sort of, somehow, to share this information I have that chiropractic is not harmless, no matter what it says in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine.

    The ethics issue is complicated… and a lot messier than the definition of what is a dick.

  16. Randy says:

    Great post Daniel. Same for the post that preceeded this one. I have been arguing on a more local level with skeptics in my geographic area about this. I think it is important for skeptics to have a discussion about the ethics of what we do, how we do it, and the manner, language and tone we use in what we do. Those who have made comments dismissive of this discussion seem to miss the point that ethics DO matter. And this is true regardless of how prevelant or not the behavior is within the community. All humans have ethical obligations, whether we choose to acknowledge them or not. And when a person violates acceptable ethical norms they deserve to be called out. If nothing else, the discussion that is now taking place will help us to clarify some shared ethical standards and responsibilities. I was myself uninvolved in this issue until this past June when I attended a Center for Inquiry leadership conference at which Heidi Anderson spoke about the snarliness and snarkiness being practiced by some skeptics. She gave some examples at that meeting. She was taken to task by some in attendance for daring to broach the topic. It was deemed by some as a matter of effectiveness. I pointed out to Heidi that in all that was said, including her own remarks, that no one had given voice to the ethical dimensions of this issue. When we interact with other humans I believe, as a humanist, that we have an ethical responsibility to remember that it is the message we should be criticizing and avoid undue mean-spirited verbal abuse of the messenger. It is for me a question of respecting the dignity of another human being. Even those with whom we passionately disagree and whose views we find absurdly unfounded are deserving of ethical consideration as humans. I have been following this discussion on the blogosphere, as I said since June, and am troubled by the focus by so many on the question of whether “dickishness” is effective or not. For me this utilitarian approach is shallow and disturbing. I choose ethics over effectiveness in the matter of debate and argumentation. And I think Daniel has contributed to this discussion a very reasonable set of points to consider. Thank you Daniel!

  17. Chris Howard says:

    Thing is, we’re ntot a profession, we’re, like it or not, a philosophical movement. That means that attempting to divorce ones personal, emotional ties is impossible. Ethical standard’s can’t be truly ethical if they’re unattainable. Normative ethics aren’t going to be very good here. If I am questioning someones beliefs, and my inquiry gets a bit “rough” or “pressing” I am doing so because I want to understand the other persons belief(s). Further, I am doing so out of respect, treating them like an adult, with a fully formed, well reasoned opinion. If what we’re talking about is just smiling and nodding, so as not to offend, that’s the definition of disrespect.

    I can make no informed opinion unless I am free to critique, and some people, especially in the U.S., will think that the very act of questioning is rude i.e., me being a dick.

    Which ethics are we talkin’? Virtue, Care, Epicurian (my personal favorite), Utilitarian, Kantian… something more pragmatic, like the aformentioned professional ethics?

    I’m not trying to be a dick, here, but this becomes really very messy, really very quickly. Ethics, is incredibly hard, and no one, ever will reamin ethical at all times, and in all instances, so let’s ease up on the hand wringing. People become angry, and respond in kind. Is it right, probably not, but it’s very human. Should we try to do better, yep…

    I guess what I’m trying to say is this, ethics is all fine and dandy, but the reality of the situation is that we are in “discussions” with people who, historically, and in some countries, currently fine us, imprision us, seize our property, and have even killed us.(I grew up in the South, in the 70′s, and I have seen all of those things happen to atheists, there) There is a lot of bad blood, and rightly so, on our side. That anger, and resentment is not going to go away, yielding itself to calm, coolheaded, well reasoned ethical behavior.

    Again, we’re a community, and a movement, not a profession. We are a diverse community, who’s members live in a wide range of environments, and face different challenges, we are far from homogenius. In other words, it’s possible to be an ethical dick, and sometimes it’s necessary. Sometimes, people will put you in a position when you have to violently defend yourself (verbally or physically) I don’t like it, but it’s simply the truth.

    More importantly, don’t confuse protest and disent with being a dick. The entire civil rights movement, owes a great deal to people who the establishment, at that time, called “dicks.” Martin Luther King Jr. preached about civil rights for a long time before the bus strikes, and until the srikes, (what was termed a “dick move” by a lot of people) no one outside of his community paid much attention.

    The worst thing a movement can do is become an echo chamber. If it doesn’t grow itself, expanding outside the borders of the already faithful, it will eventually die. This is another lesson from the civil rights movement. Grow the struggle, get white college kids, from up north involved, create awareness etc.

    Sorry, I’m typing this at too late an hour. Simply put, you can be ethical, and angry, all at the same time.

    • Ethics is not and need not be abstract and bloodless. Ethics is a practical enterprise of being attentive and thoughtful in how we act, especially toward other people.

      Ethics is not about being pure, either. It’s about doing the best we can to be responsible in complex situations, to think about the motives and consequences of actions – our own and those of others.

      It is difficult, yes, but so is anything worth doing, really.

    • badrescher says:

      People do not attempt to put aside their emotions because they get paid for what they do (and, btw, it is a profession for some of us, Daniel for example, and I consider it part of my job).

      Reasoning well requires overcoming personal biases and natural patterns of thought. Much of this discussion is about good reasoning and critical thinking – the tools we claim to be using and promoting, and the tools best utilized to inform our ethical decisions.

      • Chris Howard says:

        Fair enough, but are the ethical standards of skepticism, the profession, supposed to apply to the non-professional?

        It seems to me that we have to be careful here. Applying professional ethics to non-professionals, doesn’t seem right, somehow.

        Professional ehtical standards usually, as has been noted, come with some sort of punishment, for lack of a better word, when someone violates those standards. Will we start excommunicating people in the movement, for behavior unbecoming a skeptic? If so, who is qualified to make those decisions? Who get’s to label another a “dick”? and then exact the necessary, and prescribed judgement?

  18. Chris Howard says:

    … and Tyro, I’m so stealing “pedantic prick.” Nice cadence ;-)

  19. Tom Foss says:

    Well, one way we might talk about practices without tearing the field apart is by recognizing that “dick” is an ill-defined, content-light term, which seems to have become a Rorschach test for any skeptic of a particular mindset to read their personal methodological dislikes into and thus impart an air of authority to their personal preferences.

    We can further note that in addition to “various skeptical practices do[ing] more or less good, caus[ing] greater or lesser harm, or generat[ing] various combinations of both at the same time,” all of these practical concerns depend heavily on the context of each individual encounter, and that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to any of those questions. Moreover, we can help keep the field together by recognizing that, by and large, the “field” is populated by reasonable adults who are capable of navigating social situations, picking their ‘battles,’ and tailoring their methods to each situation as necessary. I think the biggest problem–or perhaps the biggest revelation–of the “dick” appellation is that it causes or allows the conversation to become less dialogue, more lecture, with a particular group of adult skeptics being treated like ill-behaved children.

    Regarding ethics, I’m afraid there’d have to be more detail–and more decoupling from the only-tangentially-related “dick” conversation–before any real meaningful discussion can occur. In each of the examples that Daniel provided, there is a professional organization involved, and a system which can enforce penalties and sanctions on individuals who breach their ethical obligations. Lawyers can be disbarred, police officers can lose their badges, journalists can be fired or blacklisted, scientists can lose jobs and grants, teachers and doctors can lose their licenses, and so forth. Such a system does not exist for skepticism, largely because skepticism is not a professional organization. It’s a cognitive toolset for interpreting claims. Does “feminism” or “liberalism” or “capitalism” have a code of ethics? Skepticism as a worldview and movement has more in common with those groups than with scientists and journalists.

    Inasmuch as skeptics are scientists, they should be aware of and stick to scientific ethics. Inasmuch as skeptics are journalists (blogging, etc.) they should be aware of and stick to journalistic ethics. Codes of ethics primarily govern actions, and as such the action that a given skeptic is undertaking is paramount in determining the ethics of the situation. If I’m writing a blog post and quoting an anonymous source, then I should respect my source’s confidentiality. If I’m dispensing amateur medical advice, then I should recognize the importance of informed consent and state my lack of expertise up front, and so forth.

    I suppose I’m not sure what new concerns skepticism brings to the table. The basic element of skepticism–doubting a claim until evidence is provided–has no ethical weight. It’s not until I do something with that doubt–until I act on it–that any practical system of ethics could intervene, and those actions generally fall under some other system of ethics already. What new actions does skepticism incorporate which are not covered by other systems of ethics?

    • Wendy Hughes says:

      This is precisely where I become confused and concerned about my dispute with my friend the chiropractor. She actually has a license to practice her so-called medical art… I am just a hobbyist skeptic. At the time she began, about 15-20 years ago, was when insurance carriers began to pay claims for chiropractic visits, she figured out how to submit the claims, and became the breadwinner in her family. At the time, we were happy for them. That was before I had my own experience with chiropractic just not working to help me with migraine and other problems, and deciding for myself that it was added to the list of useless alt med treatments; a list that I was surprised later to find existed in the skepticism world.

      So — overnight I decided that I just don’t have the dickishness in me to post this information from Quackwatch right on her thread… but I can post it on my own Facebook status update… she’ll see it. This is what it says:
      “Kaiser Permanente Mid Atlantic States and Mid-Atlantic Permanente Group have revised their chiropractic manipulation medical coverage policy to exclude chiropractic neck manipulation from coverage. The revised policy states:

      “Chiropractic manipulation of the cervical spine is associated with vertebral artery dissection and stroke. The incidence is estimated at 1.3-5 events per 100,000 manipulations. Given the paucity of data related to beneficial effects of chiropractic manipulation of the cervical spine and the real potential for catastrophic adverse events, it was decided to exclude chiropractic manipulation of the cervical spine from coverage.”

      Yesterday a pro basketball player who was advocating for children to ask for emotional counseling if they need it was my hero of the day. Today, Kaiser can be my hero of the day.

    • Chris Howard says:

      Tom,
      Thank you for saying what I could not at 12a.m. this morning.

  20. Mike McRae says:

    I find it strange how there are repeated requests for greater definition on this topic, with arguments being presented that anybody can appear to be dickish simply by being critical.

    Yes, the term is subjective. In fact, part of the reason there hasn’t been calling-out is because it is a subjective issue. Like art, porn, good food and comedy, we can all argue over where to draw the line. However, this isn’t about interpretation, but intention. The very fact the focus of the discussion has been a plea for evaluating the impact of how discussion is framed means one thing – this is about controlling the act of transmission and not the subjectivity of reception (i.e., the one doing the talking and not the one doing the listening). Therefore the line is already clear – don’t act with the intention of being a dick. Or, if that’s still too obscure, don’t act with the intent of making a person feel embarrassed, ashamed, threatened or intimidated because they’ve expressed a belief or claim.

    Indeed, we cannot always account for thin-skins and hostility to criticism. Some things are difficult to control with absolute conviction. But demarcation problems don’t equate a lack of categorisation. We can argue about the wavelength of where green becomes yellow, but you can’t say that means there’s no such thing as a rainbow.

    • It’s not just about being critical, but about being oblivious of the nuances of a given situation.

      So, I am a philosopher by vocation. A few years ago I taught an introductory course in philosophy in which I included a section on the philosophical consequences of evolutionary theory. One of my students, as it happens, was a confirmed young-Earth creationist.

      How do I respond to that? Do I denounce him? Humiliate him in front of the class? Do I launch an all-out assault on the idiocy that is creationism? Do I, in short, act like a dick?

      As it happened, most of the rest of the class was perfectly comfortable with evolutionary theory – I teach at an engineering university, after all – and were themselves prone to dismiss the creationist as some sort of ignorant Neanderthal.

      So, I pushed the other way, trying to get the other students to see why Darwinian evolution is such an intellectual fire-bomb, why people might be offended, shocked, even horrified by the whole idea. In short, I tried to instill some imagination, some forbearance on their part.

      There is a virtue in that kind of imagination, which recognizes that people generally are just muddling along, doing the best they can with what genetics and upbringing have given them.

      By avocation, I’m a fiddler who plays traditional music for contra dance. One of my band-mates is a practicing astrologer, one who has published books on the subject.

      I once tried to confront him on this, even just to let him know that I find his views absurd and his off-hand judgments about people based on birth-sign to be both shallow and pernicious. But I did it badly, and created much more acrimony and strife than was really necessary . . . and could easily have broken up a pretty good contra dance band.

      More broadly, the contra dance community is really a mixed bag, with its share of engineers and scientists, and its share of woo-peddlers; there are atheists, skeptics, Christians, Jews, Unitarians, and even Wiccans.

      But it is a community, and at some level we all just have to try to get along with one another, whatever our differences. That involves being diplomatic, sometimes keeping mum, sometimes speaking very carefully, imagining always how a particular combination of words will perceived and received by others.

      That is what ethics demands, in this case.

      • Tyro says:

        Humiliate him in front of the class? Do I launch an all-out assault on the idiocy that is creationism? Do I, in short, act like a dick?

        I think this is what upsets me the most about these DBAD discussions, that you could somehow argue that humiliating a single person in front of a class is at all comparable to assaulting the idea of creationism and say they are both dickish.

        If you’re teaching a theory, one of the best (IMHO) way of going about it is to compare and contrast it with competing ideas. It is interesting to your audience, creates a narrative flow, illustrates why one theory won out and yes, in so doing it shows why one theory fails. If you manage to teach evolution without teaching why Creationism fails they I think you’ve done a terrible job as an educator and done a huge disservice to your students, especially to the “confirmed” Creationist.

        Since we’re talking about ethics, I definitely don’t see any ethical virtue in pandering to their ignorance especially if you are an educator. I certainly don’t see how you can act as if humiliating a single person is in any way comparable to attacking an idea.

      • Oh, I made it very clear that evolutionary theory is on a par with atomic theory and the theory of universal gravitation. It is, in short, a winning theory.

        The point I was trying to make is more subtle: It actually matters *how* we say things, and we have an ethical responsibility – not only as professionals, but as human beings – to pay careful attention to the context in which we speak and act.

        Of course, I am painfully aware that this forum is no place for subtlety.

    • Chris Howard says:

      I get it, but we can’t control how, and when other peole get offended, and what they get offended about. More to the point, it’s not my responsibility to make sure that someone else doesn’t get offended, it’s there’s. They are making a choice to be offended.

      Should I go out of my way to be offensive, of course not, but that’s the only control I have, over myself.

      Did I misunderstand your point?

      • J. J. Ramsey says:

        “we can’t control how, and when other peole get offended”

        First, that isn’t quite true. We don’t have total control, but we do know that certain things do offend, and that some of those things, such as calling people “morons,” we can easily do without.

        Second, the goal of avoiding unnecessary offense isn’t to avoid offending at all, but to allow the other guy to look like a jerk when offended. If onlookers see someone getting offended because he/she is being spammed with playground insults, he/she is likely to get sympathy. However, if someone gets offended when someone calmly points out facts, that can easily make him/her look bad to third parties.

      • Chris Howard says:

        I get it. But I have been in situations when I, or others, have been calmly putting forth facts, and the third party onlookers, still, percieved us as “dicks.”

        I had no control over their perception of the events of the debate, and it is unethical for me to want that control. I’ve also been in situations when the playground insults were laughed off, because the target of the insult chose to be amused, rather than offended. I have done this myself sometimes… still, I get what your saying, and I pretty much agree. We may be talking past each other, here?

      • Mike McRae says:

        Nobody makes a concerned choice to be offended. I’m not sure what things you find offensive, whether it’s the actions of a religious fundamentalist or a parent who argues children should not be vaccinated, but are you truly saying you could simply switch it off, as if the act of being offended is a flip of the coin? If so, you’d be in the extreme minority. Most humans aren’t so robotic. A combination of their personal values, current emotional state and past experiences trigger whether something makes a person feel angered, embarrassed or threatened by another’s words or tone. This might not be under your control, but this again isn’t a dichotomy of ‘going out of your way to be offensive’ or giving it no thought whatsoever.

        Experience should provide you with insight into what might provide you with information about your audience and efficient methods of discussion. If you’re new to the game, invest some time and effort in learning about effective communication. Journalists, marketers, teachers, salespeople and politicians are examples of people who can’t afford to lose too many listeners and know all too well that it’s a numbers game. Unfortunately communicating science presents a far more difficult set of obstacles, meaning we can afford even less to get it wrong. It obviously won’t mean you’ll always get it right, but treating it as an all-or-nothing system is doomed to failure.

        Fortunately we have a set of thinking tools for getting the best method possible at our disposal. We just need to realise that we need to turn them inward on ourselves and ask critically ‘how can we determine the best way of communicating with a diverse audience?’.

      • Chris Howard says:

        I’m not saying that it is easy to “turn off emotions”
        Certainly, there are things that we have been culturally, and personally taught to find offensive.

        Ultimately, no one can logically claim that “You’re making me angry (sad, offended, gleeful, joyful etc)” I can’t “make” a person feel (emotionally speaking) anything. They choose the emotional reaction/response. It may not feel like a choice, because they have been conditioned to react one way or the other, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a choice. They could respond in a myriad of ways, to any given thing I say, and how they react is not with in my control, nor should it be.

        Again, I’m not saying be a dick, whatever that means. Certainly, be mindful of the audience, the culture, etc., but also be mindful, that you have no control over how another person will take what it is that you are trying to communicate.

      • Chris Howard says:

        The robotic statement is interesting. Are you saying that if you exercise control, restraint etc., over your emotions, you are a “robot”?

        In other words, the only true human is the one who succums to the the dictates of their culture, and defining moments of their past?

        This sounds a bit like an excuse to react as we have been conditioned, choosing to ignore other possible, emotional responses, and choices. It sounds a bit limiting, no?

        Again, just because I choose to react differently, from the prescribed norm, doesn’t necessarily make me a “robot.” Or, have I completely misunderstood your point?

      • Mike McRae says:

        This might just be a language thing, but for me the sticking points are your use of ‘choice’ and how you define ‘emotion’. I might have a degree of choice in how I react on consequence of feeling an emotion (whether to punch you or walk away steaming), and I may even be able to find methods of changing my emotional response to something over time. But I’m curious to know what makes you think we’re capable of ‘choosing’ whether to feel a reaction to a statement, as if it is an exercise of free will. I also find them to be mutually exclusive statements to agree we can’t decide to not feel the emotion, and yet still control whether we feel it or not (again, I might misunderstand you there – I’m distinguishing the feeling from acting upon the feeling).

        I understand your statement that we don’t have direct control over another’s emotions, and I disagree. This might be the case if we know nothing of a person or their experiences, but I can tell you I certainly know how to piss off my wife. :P How is it that if I know she loves a particular photograph, my burning it in front of her is not my action causing her to be angry?

        I think you’re confusing matters of choice with matters of responsibility. The former is quite empirical – I can have an approximate prediction of a person’s emotional state (given enough knowledge of their current state of mind and past experiences) and cause an emotional response in them through my own behaviour.

        Responsibility is different, however, and concerns your access to knowledge of your audience. It is also a personal value. I feel I have a personal responsibility not to act in a way that upsets my wife. I might not get it right all the time, and some occasions will be unavoidable, but it is something I try not to do. You might not feel that responsibility for a person, and I can’t say you’re wrong given it is a moral stance. As for a wider audience, do we have a responsibility to be able to predict the emotional response of every person? As the audience grows, it becomes impossible. So it’s up to each of us to know how much effort we’d like to put in to know our audience and what sort of emotional response our communication would get.

        Pragmatically, however, it’s another matter again. Since emotions are linked to how they’ll receive your message, it makes little sense not to take them into account if aim for your communication to be successful.

        Essentially, this boils down to us disagreeing over whether one person has some degree of control over the emotions of another. Comedians, actors, musicians, politicians, teachers, artists, writers, salespeople and marketers all stake their living on being able to. You might have taken measures over time to have a particular epistemology that means you don’t have the same emotional response to some things as…well, a random ‘norm’…but I’m quite confident that if I got to you know you, I could say or do something at some point that would elicit an emotional response from you, whether it was to make you feel amusement, fear, frustration or disgust.

  21. Randy says:

    “If I am questioning someones beliefs, and my inquiry gets a bit “rough” or “pressing” I am doing so because I want to understand the other persons belief(s). Further, I am doing so out of respect, treating them like an adult, with a fully formed, well reasoned opinion.” – Chris

    Chris, please explain to me how calling a person an asshole, idiot, moron or any other such slur is treating a person with respect and like an adult? And in what way is name-calling, character assasination or any other tactic aimed at demeaning the person a part of a “well-reasoned opinion”? I am not objecting to “harsh” criticism and tough questions. This is not my definition of “dickisness.” But when argumentative conversation and debate is peppered with ad hominen attacks, personally rude and demeaning characterizations, it has become dickish. And I maintain that employing ethical considerations in the use of our language is not an unattainable goal. Individuals may fall shy of it at times but this is no reason not set ones sights on engaging in ethical conduct in debate.

    ” and some people, especially in the U.S., will think that the very act of questioning is rude i.e., me being a dick.” – Chris

    I keep reading this statement in posts here and at other sites. Why does anyone think this a relevant point? Sure, it is likely that you will be perceived as rude when you disagree with a person’s deeply held convictions and beliefs. So what? Is the the point of this statement that since this is true, it is okay to be a dick? This statement carries no argumentative weight that I can detect.

    “Again, we’re a community, and a movement, not a profession.” – Chris

    I have no quarrel with this. However, I don’t accept this as a sufficient reason to remain silent when I read or hear a comment by a fellow skeptic that is dickish. And I don’t think it sufficient reason not to have a discussion/debate on the topic within the community.

    Chris asks a very good question about what brand of ethics should we be considering. This needs to be one of the points of discussion. While we are not a profession, I think that professional ethics of a type may be used to inform the discussion. For me personally , however, I apply humanist ethics that I have gleaned from my readings on humanism, Paul Kurtz’s writings in particular. It is not a matter that skeptics should have their own ethical code because they are skeptics. The issue is that as humans who happen to be skeptics we have ethical responsibilities to treat other humans with decency and respect for their dignity. This is not true because we are skeptics, but because we are humans.

    ” In other words, it’s possible to be an ethical dick, and sometimes it’s necessary. Sometimes, people will put you in a position when you have to violently defend yourself (verbally or physically) I don’t like it, but it’s simply the truth.” – Chris

    I can accept that there will be times when a person finds themselves in the type of situation you describe. But most of the dickishness I am reading online and hear in conversation does not fall into this exception category. I have rarely seen a situation where a person necessarily had to resort to this type of behavior to defend themselves. I am unclear how a person can be an ethical dick. I have been arguing the opposite of this. I am open to a change of view if some persuasive examples are offered.

    ” Simply put, you can be ethical, and angry, all at the same time.” – Chris

    No disagreement. Phil Plaitt said this very thing in his “Don’t Be A Dick” speech at TAM 8 this summer. I don’t think that I, Daniel Loxton nor any of the others who are arguing the “don’t be a dick” issue have said that anger is inappropriate nor incompatible with ethical behavior. But when we allow anger to justify language and behavior that is personally demeaning of another person, we have crossed the divide and entered into unethical territory. An example is Tyro’s “pedantic prick” label. I have no problem with describing a person as pedantic. But despite its appealing cadence, attaching prick to the description is not an argument of any merit and crosses the line I am describing.

    ” Such a system does not exist for skepticism, largely because skepticism is not a professional organization. It’s a cognitive toolset for interpreting claims. Does “feminism” or “liberalism” or “capitalism” have a code of ethics? Skepticism as a worldview and movement has more in common with those groups than with scientists and journalists.” – Tom

    While there is not a specific code of ethics for skepticism, liberalism, feminism or capitalism this does not mean that the practiioners of these are free of ethical obligations in their interactions with others. The ethics we should be practicing here is not a code specific to these movements, but rather a set of humanist ethics that places a premium on the value, worth, and dignity of other humans.

    “What new actions does skepticism incorporate which are not covered by other systems of ethics?” – Tom

    None, Tom. I, and I think others, including Daniel and Phil, are arguing that we should in fact employ the “other systems of ethics” to which you refer. I really like your statement that the form of ethics we employ at any given time when practicing skepticism should depend upon the particular role – scientist, blogging, journalist – we are playing at the time. But regardless of the “hat” one may be wearing at a given moment, I think that humanist ethics as I have alluded to already should always be in play.

    “don’t act with the intent of making a person feel embarrassed, ashamed, threatened or intimidated because they’ve expressed a belief or claim.” – Mike

    Well said!

    • Chris Howard wrote:

      Again, we’re a community, and a movement, not a profession.

      Randy wrote:

      While we are not a profession, I think that professional ethics of a type may be used to inform the discussion.

      It’s a profession for some, as I note in the post, in the sense that there are practitioners who pursue skeptical investigation or outreach very seriously, or as their job, or both.

      Modern scientific skepticism is an academic discipline — a young one, by the standards of these things, but one which has nonetheless been developing worldwide for decades. There are full-time professional practitioners in the field (consider Joe Nickell, D.J. Grothe, or Michael Shermer), and more field leaders who make fundamental contributions on a semi-professional basis (consider those with day jobs, like Steven Novella, or retired from other professions, like Harriet Hall). In addition, there is a large population of grassroots activists, researchers, writers, and organizers — and also enthusiasts, who participate at the consumer level.

      Skepticism is many things, including an informal community. But there is no question that there are many serious practitioners in this field who are pursuing professional-level work. That being the case, it is important to talk about the internal professional ethics and practices of that field.

      Those professional ethics may or may not accord with our personal moral values, by the way. As noted in this thread, lawyers are ethically obliged very often to do things that they personally find repugnant (to side with the bully in a lawsuit, or defend a monster in court, for example). I think skepticism faces similar situations (as when skeptics sit down for collegial conversations with proponents of ideas we may find morally wrong).

      • Tom Foss says:

        “Being a skeptic” is not a profession, for you or anyone else. You, Michael Shermer, Joe Nickell, and others may be professional writers, professional editors, professional investigators, and professional television personalities, but skepticism in and of itself is not a profession. You can doubt all you like, but you only get paid from doing other things with or related to that skeptical doubt.

        Similarly, I fail to see how skepticism is an academic discipline any more than “feminism” or “libertarianism” is an academic discipline. Skepticism is potentially a philosophy, definitely a cognitive toolset, but an academic discipline? It certainly draws from other academic disciplines–primarily science and philosophy–but I fail to see what sets it apart as its own discipline.

        One may be able to develop an academic program that falls under the skeptical purview–say, “Paranormal Studies” or “Applications of Critical Thinking” or something along those lines, the way that we have academic programs in Women’s Studies and the like, but those still fall under other disciplines (in the Women’s Studies example, generally social science). I don’t see what skepticism brings to the table that would set it apart as its own separate discipline.

        Moreover, in terms of a perception and ethical concern, I think the framing of skepticism as an academic discipline smacks of stuffy elitism and exceptionalism–especially when coupled with the “dick” debate. When we claim skepticism as an academic discipline, we implicitly or explicitly suggest that it’s for academics. Those who aren’t practicing it, or who aren’t practicing it in a suitably “academic,” “professional” way, are the common rabble, who simply do not understand or belong to the academic Skeptical Community. Perhaps that’s not the intent, but it seems that there is a contingent of skeptics who want to make skepticism into something which elevates them above others, and something from which those nasty “dicks” and “armchair skeptics” can be excluded.

        Skepticism isn’t about what you know, what books you’ve read, what classes you’ve taken, what degrees you hold, or whether or not you get a paycheck from a skeptical organization. It’s about the way you approach claims about reality. Anyone can be a skeptic, and most people are about some things. What makes a person better or worse at that natural skepticism is how well-honed the skill is and how consistently they apply it.

        If we’re going to talk ethics, then I think “universal accessibility” ought to be a part of the conversation. Making skepticism into an exclusive club, whether by developing a set of insular mores or turning it into a professional field, is something that I’d find deeply unethical and antithetical to at least my goals as a skeptic and educator.

      • badrescher says:

        Wow. That’s the longest strawman argument I think I have ever seen on this site.

      • Tom Foss says:

        Wow, that’s the least content I’ve ever read in a comment. Considering I was arguing from my impressions, and not assigning anyone a particular intent, I fail to see how it could possibly qualify as a strawman. And you seem content to just toss out the accusation without supporting it or anything.

        Gosh, Barb, don’t you think that’s a dick move?

      • Chris Howard says:

        Tom,
        At the risk of sound blasphemous, AMEN!

      • Ticktock says:

        Isn’t this a little bit like claiming that a professional magician is really just a performer/entertainer? Would you question Daniel if he were a professional magician asking whether all magicians, including amateurs, should hold themselves to ethical standards, such as not claiming true supernatural powers or not sharing the secrets of certain magic tricks?

        Magic is very similar in that very few people do it as a profession, and yet many perform it as amateurs. I can see professional magicians requesting that amateurs be careful that they are doing tricks correctly and responsibly. It potentially brings down the trade of magic to have a hundred different amateur magicians marketing themselves as the next Houdini.

        I know that improv comedy has suffered from having thousands of goober college troupes attempting the kind of long form techniques that require training and discipline. Yes, everyone should be given the freedom to put up a comedy show whenever they want, but these potentially poor performers should also know that they’ll be taking a risk of turning away an audience member from being a fan of improv forever. I don’t know how many people have told me that they will never go see an improv show again because their college team was filled with goobers and hacks. And, I say this as someone who was one of those goober hacks.

        So, what if you came across a blog called “Health Skeptic”, and this writer consistently wrote articles that were angry misinformed diatribes against the FDA and big pharma? Every fence-sitter going to that site would be so offended by the hateful ignorance that they would have a bad taste against skepticism. Would you want to include them as skeptics just for the sake of including them?

        I don’t see how Daniel’s articles about quality control and ethics should be seen in any other light than what it is, a simple request from his peers that we skeptics (amateur writers?) hold ourselves to a consistent standard.

        Why turn this around on Daniel as him being exclusionary? Exclusion is not his argument; it’s inclusion… with advice.

      • Tom Foss says:

        Magic is indeed a type of performance, just like acting or playing the violin or dancing. Each of those things brings a whole lot of different, fairly unique skills and techniques and necessities to the field, which might require certain unique ethical standards.

        I don’t see skepticism bringing those unique skills and necessities to the table. I see skepticism bringing skills to the table that are already covered by scientific standards of ethics. Things like “don’t give away another magician’s tricks” aren’t already covered by some other ethical code.

        Saying you’re a “professional skeptic” sounds to me like saying you’re a “professional critical thinker” or a “professional scientific method user” or a “professional literary analyst.” Or, like I said, a “professional feminist” or “professional conservative.” It’s a philosophy, and I think it’s silly and inaccurate to call someone a professional adherent to some philosophy.

        As to your other point, the best response I can give is this: So what? Yes, there are people in any field or philosophy who are bad examples. If a person is willing to write off the whole of violin music because they had a cousin who was terrible at strings, then that person is really just looking for an excuse to dismiss string music. The solution is either to expose the person to good examples, or to not care. You can’t force a person to change an opinion that they’re willing to hold for irrational reasons (like, “the improv troupe at my college was really bad”).

        The same goes for the term “skeptic.” There are lots of people who call themselves skeptics, from 9/11 truthers to anti-vax loons to climate change denialists, who are clearly not very good skeptics. So what? I have no way of policing who can and can’t use the term, and neither does anyone else (after all, just look at the amount of “true X” talk that goes on between religious believers). What’s the solution? Making “skeptic” a term that requires a license, like “pediatrician”? Or is it just to speak out about what skepticism is and what skeptical methods entail, and by doing so, demonstrating that some self-described skeptics are just denialists trying to claim an air of legitimacy?

        There are a lot of people and blogs who claim to be skeptics, or are considered skeptics, who I think aren’t very good skeptics. And yeah, someone going to Bill Maher for their skepticism might come away thinking that all skeptics are alt-med proponents; someone going to Penn Jilette and Michael Shermer for their skepticism might come away thinking that all skeptics are libertarians; someone going to Randi and DJ Grothe for their skepticism might come away thinking that all skeptics are gay; someone going to Phil Plait and Richard Wiseman for their skepticism might come away thinking that all skeptics are bald and goateed. The solution isn’t to police the term–why are we so invested in what people call themselves, anyway?–but to speak out as individuals, argue against the people we disagree with, and make it clear that no one person represents all of any given movement. A lot of people think all liberals are tree-hugging postmodernist hippies; should the liberal establishment develop quality control standards that exclude some potential allies based on their other beliefs and other traits? Or should they just recognize that part of being a big tent philosophy is recognizing that some people really stick out in the tent?

        My biggest problem with this “quality control” bit is best exemplified by your magic example: “It potentially brings down the trade of magic to have a hundred different amateur magicians marketing themselves as the next Houdini.” That may be the case (though I don’t think it is), but what will also “bring down the trade of magic” is having quality control standards that effectively discourage those hundred different amateur magicians from even trying to be the next Houdini. At one point, Houdini was an amateur too.

        A lot of the amateur, armchair skeptics in the skeptical blogosphere are young, and as such don’t have either the experience or the knowledge that some of the more seasoned veterans have. They will make mistakes, both in terms of content and tone, and I don’t see that as a problem. The way most of us learned how to think critically was by making those same mistakes and learning from them, by reading the popular books, by communicating with others and watching them in action. When we throw out terms like “academic discipline” and call apparent slip-ups in tone “dickishness,” I think we risk discouraging some of that younger guard from trying, for fear of making those mistakes. Perhaps that’s an unfounded concern on my part, but I think if I’d come into the skeptical movement six months or so ago, when the term “armchair skeptic” was being thrown around derogatorily, I might have felt discouraged from trying to join up.

        Any group has its hacks and hangers-on. I think it’s a mistake to try to weed them out with some kind of top-down system, or to try to develop some set of rigid academic standards for a set of methods that should be open and accessible to anyone. I’m not saying that’s what Loxton or others are necessarily trying to do, but I think that’s certainly a reasonable concern with this kind of discussion. Like it or not, academia is not generally regarded as universally inclusive and accessible. And I say that speaking as a stuffy academic.

      • Ticktock says:

        I think it’s good that the leaders of skepticism, the people who are getting paid to promote critical thinking and science-based conclusions, are taking the surge in skeptical participation seriously. “DBAD”, “Skepticism is a Humanism”, and “Where do We Go From Here?” are all attempts by skeptical veterans at being a positive example and inspiration for skeptical rookies.

        Skepticism is a tool kit for critical thinking and not a dogma. I think some of this resistance to Daniel’s advice comes from the misconception that he is mapping dogma onto our mutual tool kit so he can hijack the tone and behavior to fit his own ideals. Naturally, skeptics are diverse group who resist the idea of authority and being self-categorized. It would be nearly impossible to police tone, or to curb behavior, even if Daniel and others wanted to do so. I suspect that they merely want to model the behavior that they feel will advance skepticism, and share their ideas for others to consider. I can understand the concerns of dogma, but I don’t think it’s their intention at all.

        At the least, newer skeptics will have several resources that may or may not inspire them toward a more effective way to communicate their ideas. Also, any “true believer” who says that all skeptics are assholes can be pointed toward these articles as an example of what skeptical veterans are recommending for better dialogue.

        You imply that these conversations are not having an impact on the skeptical community, but I think that there are quite a few people who are reconsidering their tactics. On the other hand, there are a few people who are resisting against it purposefully because they feel like these tone arguments are sanctimonious. It’s hard to say which side is winning the debate, but it baffles me that being a dick would be more convincing for people.

        I think that it would make a world of difference if someone like PZ Myers mentioned to his horde of followers that sending hate mail to his latest victim of derision is unnecessary and often not helpful. Of course that won’t happen, but when I hear people asking for examples of “dickishness”, I think of the reactionary zealotry that Pharyngula generates, and I wonder if it’s healthy for the cause and whether anything can be done to elevate the discourse.

        Perhaps, as you suggest, the efforts are futile. I still have hope. Every once in a while, much as he might not like to admit it, PZ asks for more respectful tone (creation museum, cincinnati zoo), so that’s encouraging. With great blog readership comes greater responsibility — or something like that.

      • Don says:

        I think that it would make a world of difference if someone like PZ Myers mentioned to his horde of followers that sending hate mail to his latest victim of derision is unnecessary and often not helpful.

        Actually, PZ did just that a couple of years ago when some of his commenters became a little overzealous. He’s not nearly the ogre people paint him as; he’s just the poster boy for “dicks” because he doesn’t worry too much about hurting people’s feelings.

    • Chris Howard says:

      “intent” is the key word, here.

  22. J. J. Ramsey says:

    What ethical burden do we bear when we suggest that a company is crooked, or assert that someone’s deepest beliefs are mistaken? What are our responsibilities when we suspect that a product may be bogus, or imply publicly that an individual is a con artist, or assert that a claim is right or wrong? These are clearly complicated, situational, value-laden questions.

    To the extent that those questions are complicated, they are mostly complicated in the details. It doesn’t really take a genius to recognize that one needs to back up one’s claims with evidence, for example. Nor is it particularly remarkable to say that if one is going to accuse someone else of being a fraud, one had better have a tight case.

    Also, we shouldn’t let ethical questions paralyze us. For example, the consensus of experts is clearly in favor of vaccination, so mostly all we have to worry about is dotting i’s and crossing t’s: knowing who the experts are, making sure not to exaggerate one’s claims, etc. One can say the same for dealing with homeopathy or other quackery. The facts are pretty clearly on our side, and we mostly just have to take a little care and use some common sense to make sure that those facts are presented accurately.

  23. Badger says:

    It is with interest that I view this debate, and the DBAD issue.

    I’m a scientifically educated lay person, associated with the skeptical community and involved in fostering grass roots critical thinking, and from that perspective it is my thought that to expect the answers to spring forth, fully formed, and be accepted by those not so rigorously versed in the scientific community, and philosophy (the majority of people) is unreasonable.

    That is not to say that these type of discussions are pointless. They are not. They are helping to define best practices.

    Keep up the good work, and the good discussion and debate, everyone.

  24. Wendy Hughes says:

    For the record… I posted the Quackwatch story about Kaiser/chiropractic on my Facebook status update… and it got a few friendly “likes”. But what was really cool was that it was picked up by a facebook friend who really is a scientist who shared it with me. That was awesome. If my chiropractor friend sees it, that’s even better, but I feel as if I did the right thing. Maybe that’s all that matters sometimes. I posted a message about what damage chiropractic does, and what a huge HMO such as Kaiser thinks about it.

  25. ohduh says:

    Just say what you have to say and let the chips fall. It is utterly ridiculous to take yourselves this seriously. “I am the arbitor of skepticism.” The world needs open, free debate, and that is what is happening all over the internet. Dicks, schlumps, wotangs, make up your own word–who the f cares? I think everyone can take the heat and we don’t need asbestos panties.

    • badrescher says:

      Is this not “open, free debate”? Discussions like this one actually do make people think more carefully about what they say and how they say it. Nobody is trying to pass laws about manners, nor are they needed. Changes in culture, brought about through discussions like these, are sufficient.

    • Mike McRae says:

      a) Ditto to what Barb said.

      b) I’m starting to get the feeling that a lot of people half read a post and then skip to commenting without following the discussion. Otherwise, it’d be clear that this isn’t just an issue of playing nice for fear of what others might think (although ethics of ridicule for the sake of making oneself feel superior do come into it), but a matter of effective discussion. What the world does need, as you said, is free debate. Slanging matches without a care as to whether your point is being made isn’t debate, let along progressive. It’s about effective communication rather than a carefree, laissez faire attitude that could be at best a waste of time, and at worst damaging.

    • I can’t help feeling that this “just say what you have to say and let the chips fall” argument would be more persuasive if it wasn’t posted anonymously.

      • Don says:

        I can’t help feeling that claiming someone’s argument lacks persuasive value based on a personal trait of the arguer (e.g. anonymity) is an ad hominem fallacy.

  26. Chris Howard says:

    Okay, I think we’re confusing being civil, and or courteous with being ethical. They aren’t always one-in-the same. Hypothetical: having to injure or kill another to save the victim, not too civil, but according to some schools of ethics, valid.
    Ethics, is so diverse a topic, and the skeptic community is so diverse a community that I’m not sure that we’d ever agree on an ethical philosophy, perhaps something more nebulous, like general professional ethical codes… something to leave a little wiggle room.

    But… I mean really, we’re Libertarians, Liberals, Conservatives, some of us are religious skeptics, humanists, U.S. citizens, U.K. citizens, Brazilians, Mexicans, Canadians, insert country here, this doesn’t even account for SES, any variance in sub-culture, or personal experience(s).

    I understand that I’m, probably, one of the biggest members, in here (pun intended) but who gets to decide that I’m being too much of a “dick”? What are the sanctions for unethical behavior, and who gets to decide, and exact the prescribed corrective measure? (also, pun intended)

    Is this “worry” all because we have huge ethical breeches, within the skeptical community? Are we frustrated (those of us who are) because we have a community of very articulate, great and compassionate minds, as well as strong, and valid position(s), and little traction beyond a few sites on the internet, and some (albeit awesome)conventions?

    Addressing the underlying issue(s) of “dickness” may be more benificial than prescribing a “how-to” list, of propper rhetoric, and decorum, and then calling someone a dick.

    If you are a professional skeptic. (are you a skeptical journalist, or a journalist that writes on matters which concern themselves with skepticism, or both? I’m a little confused) then, yes, you have to have a set of professional ethics, from which to do your job by. I’m skeptical as to wether the non-professional community should be held to that (professional) standard.

    • Mike McRae says:

      Interesting point you bring up, Chris, and one I’ve been mulling over for a while now as well in terms of trying to articulate.

      There seems to be two camps here. One claims that skeptics should strive to be aware of how their communication will be received on an emotional level and try to reduce the amount of negative emotions. The justifications for this fall into the pragmatic and the ethical. The second camp calls for diversity and free choice in communication, either claiming it is pragmatically more useful, or out of misinterpretation in feeling there is an attempt to homogenise rationalist outreach or create a dogma. (There could also be a third camp of random tantrums which makes no sense to me whatsoever, so I’ll just ignore until they can make a coherent argument).

      So, why not have such broad diversity? On the surface it is more liberal and provides more chance of success, right?

      I have two thoughts on this. One is a matter of limited resources. Wasting them on tactics that might not work in achieving their goals is worth discussing by employing a skeptical methodology. And two, given a diversity of goals, some methods might conflict. For example, if your goal is to build a solid community by using ridicule as a social bonding agent (which works well), it can conflict with those who have goals of encouraging people to share their epistemology (where ridicule discourages people). So determining what works and what doesn’t should be something all skeptics engage in by their own defining principles, regardless of their personal aims.

      This is not a matter of creating a skeptical code of law. Nobody will send the dick police around for name calling. It is about encouraging a culture change through discussing shared or distinct goals, methods and ethics, not about forcing it through censorship or intimidation.

    • NightHiker says:

      Chris,

      “I’m skeptical as to wether the non-professional community should be held to that (professional) standard.”

      If I’m not mistaken, you’re a designer or are involved with visual arts somehow. If so, let me use an example that might hit home: professional designers suffer a lot in their work because of the perceptions about the profession that amateur designers create on the public, among other things. Does that mean amateur designers should be held to the same standards as professional ones? Maybe not – but their actions affect our profession enough to at least warrant some discussion about it.

      I see the same thing with skeptical outreach. As far as we are, professionals or amateurs, interested in achieving good results, it would be important to try to at least instill in the community some habits that would make for more effective communication (whatever we decide they are – that’s what the discussion is about).

      Unfortunately I am seeing a lot of angry retorts that seem to come from an arrogant stance related to their perception of someone trying to tell them what to do, as if they could never go wrong and pointing possible flaws in their actions was preposterous – in other words, I see a lot of the reactions commonly seen in the very people they like to ridicule.

      “But… I mean really, we’re Libertarians, Liberals, Conservatives, some of us are religious skeptics, humanists, U.S. citizens, U.K. citizens, Brazilians, Mexicans, Canadians, insert country here, this doesn’t even account for SES, any variance in sub-culture, or personal experience(s).”

      I don’t see how this is relevant to the core issue of this discussion, as Mike has pointed out. It doesn’t matter if you are Brazilian, Libertarian, or any other denomination – as far as you are able to properly read the words we’re writing, you will understand “don’t act with the intent of making a person feel embarrassed, ashamed, threatened or intimidated because they’ve expressed a belief or claim.”

      • Chris Howard says:

        I’m not sure we all can agree on an Ethic of Skepticism, it doesn’t seem like we’re doing a very good job, currently. ;-)

        Some of us don’t see it as necessary, some see it as imparitive, and some see it as counter productive, an infringement on thier freedoms, so which one of us are “right.”

        Now, if this is isolated to the people in the discussion, on this board, and most skeptics are in agreement that we need an Ethic of Skepticism, then okay. Please note, I am not saying “don’t be ethical” I am saying take responsibility for your behavior and emotions, and respect others as, fully capable adults, that also take responsibility for their emotions and behavior. If we don’t have this idea of free will, and ethical responsibility for ourselves, and others, emotions and behaviors, then nothing we table will be tenable, or just, or ethical, for that matter.

        “don’t act with the intent of making a person feel embarrassed, ashamed, threatened or intimidated because they’ve expressed a belief or claim.”

        It sounds like you’re assuming that everyone understands the way in which you understand, is this a correct assumption on my part? I agree with the statement, but that doesn’t mean that it is universally understood, the same way that I understand it.
        What if the claim is down right “Eeeeville”? is ok for me to ridicule Nazism, Eugenics, Racism, Sexism etc.?

      • NightHiker says:

        I’m not assuming everyone will agree with the statement, or that anyone will agree with it all the time either – I’m saying everyone capable of understanding the words will understand what it means. I said that to address some of the claims about the discussion being too vague to have merit – it’s not. Whether the position is valid or not, and when, can be further discussed, preferentially with as much hard data as we can gather – which was, seemingly, Daniel’s intention when starting the debate on the previous post.

        Maybe we will come to the conclusion that ridicule is more effective than we first thought, but in order to reach that conclusion we need more than anecdotes and gut feeling.

      • Chris Howard says:

        Okay, Gotcha’ Thanks for the clarification.

  27. Chris Howard says:

    Wow! I think my skeptic card should be revoked, simply on account of my writing (or inability to write)

  28. ohduh says:

    Obviously, Chris and I see the Emperor has no clothes and many of the other commenters still want to discuss the couture cut.

    Ethics of ridicule–congrats on creating a whole new category of b.s.

    Rhetoric has many devices, one of which is satire or ridicule. As Chris pointed out, logical fallacies are more common and reprehensible in these comment threads than name-calling.

    ‘Professional skeptics’ just want to sell their websites and maybe get on t.v., achieve some kind of Oprah-type success, but I got news for them, they’re not gonna. Debating Chopra and such like other travesties just makes rationality look like it needs validation. Virtue and skepticism are their own rewards, that’s why they’re so rare.

  29. Chris Howard says:

    Mike-
    “This might just be a language thing, but for me the sticking points are your use of ‘choice’ and how you define ‘emotion’. I might have a degree of choice in how I react on consequence of feeling an emotion (whether to punch you or walk away steaming), and I may even be able to find methods of changing my emotional response to something over time. But I’m curious to know what makes you think we’re capable of ‘choosing’ whether to feel a reaction to a statement, as if it is an exercise of free will.”

    Biggus Dickus-
    Is there a reason to believe that emotions are not subject to free will? If they aren’t then how can we ever change, emotionally, for better or worse? Are you saying that we are at the mercy of our emotions?

    Let me attempt to clarify: Emotion, what you feel. No value judgement, on my part, they are what they are. You have to have unmanipulated freedom to feel a full and healthy range of emotions, but in return one has to take (again, non-value judgement) responsibility to ones emotional choices. I can’t be held responsible for an others emotions. I, literally, can’t make soeone else “feel” anything, without their consent.

    Let’s say, you insult me, I can either be offended, or I can be indifferent, or I can laugh it off, but no matter how I react, I have to take responsibility, and “own” my emotions, and subsequent response. Would it be fair to you, to blame you for my emotions? No. Could I blame you for insulting me, and being a dick? (not saying that you would) but, yes. In that inistance, you would have to take responsibility not only for your behavior i.e., insulting me, but also the emotion that caused it, envy, hatred, averise, greed, what have you. Does that make any sense, or am I just clouding the issue?

    Choice: We choose a reaction, behavior, emotional response. Human beings are higly adaptive, and have a myriad of options from which to choose (as long as they are free, and not manipulated by outside forces such as behavior modification techniques, applied by others agianst ones will) Choice may be better substituted with response, although I don’t really like it. But even still, we’re stuck, becasue a reactive response is nothing more (in the context we’re talking about here) than a habituated choice. I initially chose to feel, and then react, repeated times, in the same manor, until it became a knee-jerk, response. This doens’t free us from responsibility regarding our emotions. Culture, upbringing, personal experience may have, infact, help to shape how we react, and even how we feel, but an explination is not an excuse.

    Mike-
    “I understand your statement that we don’t have direct control over another’s emotions, and I disagree. This might be the case if we know nothing of a person or their experiences, but I can tell you I certainly know how to piss off my wife. :P How is it that if I know she loves a particular photograph, my burning it in front of her is not my action causing her to be angry?”

    Biggus Dickus-
    Again, that is an unethical attempt, at manipulation of your wife, by you. You would be attempting to create a situation, in which, you most likely would know that it will end up, with her getting mad, but you can never be certain of her reaction, because she has free will, and it is possible for her to act (no matter how slim) in a different manner. Additionally, she may be entirely in the right to be “pissed off” But she’d still have to take responsibility for her emotions, and you would have a lot of ‘splanin’ ta’ do, because you would have an unethical, attempted manipulation on your hands (not that you would manipulate your wife, just sayin’) Responsibility, doesn’t mean that the emotion is “right” or “wrong” it’s just a mature recognition that you take responsibility for what you felt. If you do not, you will always be at the mercy of others, and how they “make” you “feel.” If you ascribe to this belief of emotional disconnectedness, then you are adrift, rudderless, in a sea of dicks, like me. ;-)

    Mike-
    “I think you’re confusing matters of choice with matters of responsibility. The former is quite empirical – I can have an approximate prediction of a person’s emotional state (given enough knowledge of their current state of mind and past experiences) and cause an emotional response in them through my own behaviour.”

    Biggus Dickus-
    Funny. I thought this of you. I think you’re giving yourself too much power over others. You have an ethical responsibility to not “be a dick” You cannot control how a person feels, or reacts, there are simply too many variables. It may be that you do everything within your power, not to offend, and yet you may still be percieved, a dick. More to the point, ethically, even if we could “make” people happy, glad, content etc., we shouldn’t, because it robs them of their choice.

    Mike-
    “As for a wider audience, do we have a responsibility to be able to predict the emotional response of every person? As the audience grows, it becomes impossible. So it’s up to each of us to know how much effort we’d like to put in to know our audience and what sort of emotional response our communication would get.”

    Biggus Dickus-
    But predicting a response is tatamount to not really listening. This isn’t a chess match, or it shouldn’t be, if I’m really listening, and effectively communicating it’s because I’m present, in the moment, and have allowed others to be so. I’m not catering to their whims, I’m expressing my beliefs, and hopefully they are too.

    Mike-”
    Pragmatically, however, it’s another matter again. Since emotions are linked to how they’ll receive your message, it makes little sense not to take them into account if aim for your communication to be successful.”

    Biggus Dickus- Agreed. But one still has to take responsibility for their emotions, and part of that is making good choices (emotional or otherwise), when we are responding to our critics.

    Mike-
    “Essentially, this boils down to us disagreeing over whether one person has some degree of control over the emotions of another. Comedians, actors, musicians, politicians, teachers, artists, writers, salespeople and marketers all stake their living on being able to.”

    Biggus Dickus-
    They stake their livelihood on the fact that many of us allow them to, there is a difference. Once we take responsibility for emotions, learn that we have choices, those manipulations (it’s a bad word) have less of a control on us.

    So, have I explained myself any better, or just muddied the waters?

    • NightHiker says:

      Chris,

      You seem to be too centered on the process (i.e. should we care if it pisses people off), instead of the goal of communication (i.e. to reach consensus). Whether people get offended or not is irrelevant here – the important thing is if your communication is being compatible with your goals. It just happens that offending someone is rarely compatible with whatever goal you delineate apart from self-gratification.

      If you don’t start with the intent to reach consensus, then there’s no point in trying to communicate. The key to communication is shared repertoire – and you have to at least try to take your audience into account, or see the issue from their eyes, when looking for such repertoire. No one is guaranteeing success, just better odds. If you were sick and I presented you with an alternative that could improve your chances even if just by 10%, would you say: “No thanks, it’s not a sure thing, so I’ll pass”? I don’t think so.

      Of course, we can discuss whether that alternative (i.e. not being gratuitously mean) really improves your odds (what this discussion should be about), instead of trying to argue it’s irrelevant whether it does or doesn’t (what it has been about).

      • Don says:

        If you don’t start with the intent to reach consensus, then there’s no point in trying to communicate.

        I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to defend this. I communicate all the time without the goal of reaching consensus, and I think it’s awful condescending to say that you should never communicate with someone unless your goal is to convince them of your point of view.

        Which, to be fair, might not be what you’re saying; by “consensus,” perhaps you simply mean that communication between or among people should always be about finding something agreeable in the end. Again, I still don’t see why this is the case. Sometimes communication is simply about sharing ideas without worrying about consensus; sometimes it’s all about speaking one’s mind. These are perfectly legitimate reasons to talk. Calling a moratorium on communication unless it’s aimed at “reaching consensus” is just odd.

      • NightHiker says:

        I think here lies a misunderstanding about what communication entails.

        Communication requires three elements: the sender, the message, and the receiver. It also implies a shared repertoire which is used to encode the message in a way the receiver will be able to decode it. There is no point in sending a message that won’t be understood by the receiver.

        Of course, the attempt to communicate does not guarantees it, but consensus is the ultimate, ideal goal of any communication effort. In other words, communication is about imparting some change on the receiving end. If you have no expectation whatsoever that something you say will have the least effect on the receiver, why would you bother to do it? If all you want is to exercise your voice, you might as well talk to the mirror.

        Also, “sharing” implies mutual ownership, so you can’t talk about “sharing ideas” without having at least some degree of consensus in the mix.

      • Don says:

        So essentially you define “communication” in such a way that your argument is true.

        “Sharing ideas” does not imply mutual ownership. It implies open communication between people who have different ideas and want to know about each other. At the end, consensus may be formed, but then they might just agree to disagree which, on one level, is a type of consensus. But on another level, it’s not a consensus at all.

        I regularly communicate to engage in shared emotional experiences with my friends and family. How is this “building consensus?” I and most other people certainly aren’t after consensus-building when we talk about the movie we just saw. We’re simply sharing an experience.

        And as for this argument that I’ve been seeing more and more often lately that one should stay silent if one doesn’t have an audience in mind for one’s words, well, I simply can’t fathom it. Why should I stay silent just because I don’t particularly care whether or not my words convince somebody I am right? When did it suddenly become undesirable to simply say one’s peace?

        You strike me as one of the Houyhnhnm from Gulliver’s Travels, convinced that the only purpose for communication is to share information, period. That seems to me a rather myopic view of something we do all the time for many different reasons.

      • NightHiker says:

        Don,

        This is not “my” definition, but is on par with any scholarly definition of “communication” you may find. You are the person who seems to be attaching some colloquial, personal meaning to the term. Do some research if you’re interested.

        If you enacted no change whatsoever on your recipient, you have not really communicated, period. It’s not simply about agreement – the person might ultimately not agree with you, but she will have to at least understand where you are coming from in order to decide whether to agree with you or not. If there is no understanding, there’s no communication – just noise.

        “Why should I stay silent just because I don’t particularly care whether or not my words convince somebody I am right?”

        Oh… I’m not saying you should stay silent, I’m actually challenging your claim that you do not care whether there’s someone listening. If someone truly doesn’t care to be heard, he has no motivation to speak out.

      • Don says:

        I’ll do some research into scholarly definitions of “communication” and refrain from commenting further on that topic for now. I do want to address this, however:

        Oh… I’m not saying you should stay silent, I’m actually challenging your claim that you do not care whether there’s someone listening. If someone truly doesn’t care to be heard, he has no motivation to speak out.

        That’s not quite my claim. My claim is more along the lines of “I don’t care if people agree with me.” I’ll say my piece and people can take it or leave it or completely ignore it. I’ve been told before that having that attitude disqualifies me from being allowed to speak, and I apologize if I have incorrectly projected that idea onto you.

      • NightHiker says:

        Don,

        “That’s not quite my claim. My claim is more along the lines of “I don’t care if people agree with me.””

        I still don’t believe that’s true. You might want to think that’s the case, though – I have thought it too, as well. But after some self-criticism I’ve come to the conclusion we all care if people agree with us. Acknowledgement triggers our pleasure centers – it’s a matter of brain chemistry. You might say you don’t care, but I doubt you don’t get a good feeling when you see that someone does agree with you. If you don’t, you might be clinically depressed or have some personality disorder.

        My point is that whenever you speak your mind, there’s a reason for it. If you didn’t get anything out of it, you’d have no motivation to do so. It might happen that your goal in such cases is not to actually communicate – though in that case I’ll leave it to you to figure out what it might be.

        Now, there’s something else that triggers our pleasure centers, which is the self-serving ridicule of others. This is, many times, easier to achieve than actually trying to communicate, so I understand it might be seen as a good shortcut to some (not you, necessarily).

      • Mike McRae says:

        I’m going to back NightHiker up on this, as a professional science communicator and ex-science/media teacher.

        As he said, communication is always broken down into the transmitter, the medium and the receiver. The aim of communication is for information in the transmitter to transfer to the receiver as faithfully as possible. It’s part of the reason why there is a common argument over how ‘art’ relates to communication (i.e. if it’s in the eye of the beholder, this process does not have to have fidelity at all).

        The aim of communication is defined by this fidelity of the information. Even if you’re not intending to make somebody use it to adjust their belief system, it makes no sense to say you’re not out for them to receive the information as you intend, even if it’s just so they understand your perspective. That is how I understand ‘consensus’.

      • Tom Foss says:

        Um…I write mostly because I enjoy writing. There are times when I write that I want to convince people of things, there are times when I write that I want to speak my mind, and there are times when I write just to put thoughts out into the ether. If I always cared about convincing people and reaching consensus, I’d be a whole lot more concerned with the number of hits my blogs get each day. I’m not, because ultimately when I write, I write for me.

        Are you saying that every poem, every work of fiction, every letter and blog post, every diary or journal entry, every tweet on Twitter and Facebook status update is written to convince someone about something? Or are you saying that those things aren’t communication? Either way, I think that’s pretty clearly absurd.

        Your further commentary is pretty absurd as well; “self-serving ridicule” isn’t communication? I think a crowd of Kent Hovind audience members would disagree.

        Ignoring the possibility that there are reasons for speaking beyond achieving consensus (such as, for instance, enjoying speaking)? That’s myopic.

        Telling people that they don’t believe what they say, and presuming to lecture them on what they actually believe? That’s just plain arrogance.

        As to Mike, you seem to make it clear that the terms “communication” and “consensus” are being used here as technical jargon, removed from any casual use of the term. Perhaps what you two are saying makes sense to Communication Theorists, but your message has broken down on the way to receivers who are using the terms as the vast majority of people use them.

      • NightHiker says:

        Tom Foss,

        “Telling people that they don’t believe what they say, and presuming to lecture them on what they actually believe? That’s just plain arrogance.”

        You really need to read things more carefully. I said I didn’t believe him and why, not that he didn’t believe what he was saying.

        Now, about writing to yourself… Why do you put it on your blog instead of a drawer?

        Writing is not necessarily communicating. If there’s no recipient, then there’s no communication, by default. However, if you make your writings available by some means, there is at least the presumption of a potential audience. You are correct, though, in saying there’s not always intent to reach consensus, as there is one mode of communication where sender and receiver don’t even need to know each other or even be alive at the same time. Even then, though, the receiver has to have enough in common with the sender to comprehend where he’s coming from.

        We are not, however, speaking about unintentional communication, but about how to best communicate with others when we want to do so.

      • NightHiker says:

        Tom Foss,

        I’m sorry, I forgot to comment this:

        “Your further commentary is pretty absurd as well; “self-serving ridicule” isn’t communication?”

        Oh, it is communication all right. Only not with the person you’re ridiculing. When you ridicule someone, your real audience is made of those who are watching and might agree with you (as you noted yourself). Mike was pretty clear on that topic, so I don’t think I need to say more about it.

      • Julie says:

        “I still don’t believe that’s true. You might want to think that’s the case”

        So basically your entire counterargument boils down to, “Nuh uh!”

      • NightHiker says:

        Julie,

        I want to believe your conclusion would be different if instead of cherry picking one phrase out of context, you bothered to actually read everything I and Mike wrote about it in here.

      • NightHiker says:

        By the way, this is getting really tiring. There was not one person from the opposite camp that proceeded to answer to my arguments without butchering them first, willingly or not.

        I also find it interesting that Mike is getting much more respectful answers, some even in agreement (although the person mistakenly said she agreed). I would offer as a likely reason the fact that while he said pretty much the same things, he’s much more articulate and diplomatic than I am, probably because he’s had formal, academic training while I’m a subversive, self-taught prick.

        So that comes as evidence, albeit anecdotal, that the way you choose to say something DOES matter when you’re trying to make yourself understood, even more so when you encounter people who are already predisposed to disagree.

      • Chris Howard says:

        “Chris,
        You seem to be too centered on the process (i.e. should we care if it pisses people off), instead of the goal of communication (i.e. to reach consensus). Whether people get offended or not is irrelevant here – the important thing is if your communication is being compatible with your goals.”

        Biggus Dickus-
        Well, we should care if we piss people off, I never said we shouldn’t care. What I said was that we have no control over how, when, and where people get offended, not the same thing, no? I did say that if they did get pissed off, that they had to own up to their emotions, regardless of wether they were “right” of “wrong” to be angry, is irrelevent to simply owning up to ones emotions. Now, if I behaved poorly, then the same thing applies to me. In otherwords, I have to take responsibility for my emotions, and my behavior (no judgement necessary) just me being ethically responsible for my feelings and behavior, regardless of wether they are reprehensible, or not.

        “It just happens that offending someone is rarely compatible with whatever goal you delineate apart from self-gratification.”

        Biggus Dickus-
        Of course. And we should take responsibility for our emotional need, or want, for self-gratification, or whatever motivated us to be a “dick.”

        “If you don’t start with the intent to reach consensus, then there’s no point in trying to communicate. The key to communication is shared repertoire – and you have to at least try to take your audience into account, or see the issue from their eyes, when looking for such repertoire. No one is guaranteeing success, just better odds. If you were sick and I presented you with an alternative that could improve your chances even if just by 10%, would you say: “No thanks, it’s not a sure thing, so I’ll pass”? I don’t think so.
        Of course, we can discuss whether that alternative (i.e. not being gratuitously mean) really improves your odds (what this discussion should be about), instead of trying to argue it’s irrelevant whether it does or doesn’t (what it has been about).”

        I agree. I must not have communicated very well here. That’s all well and good, but at the end of the day we all have to take responsibility for our emotions, and behavior. This is all I say. I may have explained this better below, it seems to be a common misunderstanding, or rather miscommunication.

      • NightHiker says:

        “I agree. I must not have communicated very well here. That’s all well and good, but at the end of the day we all have to take responsibility for our emotions, and behavior. This is all I say.”

        That’s fair enough, but I don’t see how that is an objection to the point Daniel and Mike are making.

        To me it’s clear we need to concentrate on being precise while communicating our ideas (and that’s why saying “vaccines are perfectly safe” is wrong), and let derision for it’s sake out of the equation. It’s not about sacrificing the content of our message in order to appeal to the masses – just about being careful to not sacrifice communication itself by offending them outright.

      • Chris Howard says:

        I’m not sure I objected to Daniel or Mikes points, did I?

      • NightHiker says:

        Chris,

        “I’m not sure I objected to Daniel or Mikes points, did I?”

        Not actually, but you were raising some concerns that didn’t seem relevant to their points specifically. I think since then, from what I’ve seen on your last comments, any misunderstanding that might have existed has subsided. In other words, we have succeeded at communication. :)

      • Chris Howard says:

        Perhaps we have. ;-)

    • Mike McRae says:

      “Is there a reason to believe that emotions are not subject to free will? If they aren’t then how can we ever change, emotionally, for better or worse? Are you saying that we are at the mercy of our emotions?”

      To an extent, yes. You yourself admitted you can’t just ‘turn them off’, as if they are an extension of our intellect. I can take actions to put them into context, or avoid acting on account of them. I suspect a lot of things we take for granted as free will aren’t as completely under our control as we’d like to think, but that’s another argument.

      “Again, that is an unethical attempt, at manipulation of your wife, by you. You would be attempting to create a situation, in which, you most likely would know that it will end up, with her getting mad, but you can never be certain of her reaction, because she has free will, and it is possible for her to act (no matter how slim) in a different manner.”

      Unethical? Undoubtedly. But not impossible.

      This ‘free will’ part appears to be our real sticking point. I’m trying to avoid being philosophical over it, and trying to keep this as empirical as possible. Now, I’m not saying we have zero control over how we emotionally react to something. For instance, to avoid fear, some people will embrace superstition. To be happy, some people will have mantras they repeat or try to keep an optimistic focus. Over time, such mental safeguards might even change how their limbic system fundamentally deals with stimuli. But for the most part, emotions aren’t at the whim of our conscious control.

      “It may be that you do everything within your power, not to offend, and yet you may still be percieved, a dick.”

      True. I don’t know of a way to possibly perceive all of the variables for a varied audience. But it’s not all or none. There are certainly ways you can be fairly confident you will elicit particular emotions in a particular demographic. Whether we say you ’caused’ it or not might be quibbling. It’s not hard to make a prediction that one form of communication will create a particular emotional reaction in an audience and have a high degree of probability that it will come true.

      “But predicting a response is tatamount to not really listening.”

      I’m not sure how you conclude this. No, it’s not a chess match. It’s a discussion. And one would hope that in discussing, your aim is to a) have your audience receive your information with minimal misinterpretation, and b) you receive their information with minimal misinterpretation. Emotional state affects how this occurs. No big secret there. In this context, I’m not suggesting that you adopt any particular communication strategy necessarily, except that I’d hope it was one that was conducive to your goal.

      “But one still has to take responsibility for their emotions, and part of that is making good choices (emotional or otherwise), when we are responding to our critics.”

      I’ve got no problem with people being responsible for the consequences of their own emotional state. For what it’s worth, I agree that if somebody is offending you, the best action is to walk away. I can’t see how you can just not be offended out of choice, but I definitely agree that you can behave in a manner to avoid the offending stimulus.

      “They stake their livelihood on the fact that many of us allow them to, there is a difference.”

      I disagree, but given your position is unfalsifiable it’s kind of moot. Even personally, I can claim to not have much control over how I feel about something, even if I can control whether I expose myself to it or build up a resistance to the stimulus (habituate, for example). But you can counter claim that it’s possible for me to employ ‘free will’ and not feel it; I’m just ‘allowing myself’ to. So, it’s not an argument that’s going to progress much on that front.

      In any case, it’s all well and good to say that your audience is responsible for how they feel about what you’re saying. If they’re offended and walk off without listening, you can most definitely claim it’s their own choice and you’re not responsible for that. But let’s have a thought experiment – imagine two groups of communicators. One communicates with knowledge of the potential emotion response from their audience. The other doesn’t. Who is more likely to succeed in negotiating a productive discussion?

      • Chris Howard says:

        I’m not attempting to lay blame. It’s true, you are more likely to get your point across if you adhere to the cultural norms of your audience, when you act in a courteous manner, in fact I have no disagreement with the whole “don’t be a dick” crowd. In fact, I don’t think that I ever denied that claim.

        What I do say is that no matter how well prepared you are, there is no guarantee that your audience will receive you well. Further, if you have tried to communicate your point, prepared, done, by all accounts, an excellent job on your end, then you have taken the proper, end ethical steps to attempt to communicate. The rest of the responsibility for communication, lays in the hands of the second party, or parties, to whom you are communicating. It has to be a two way street, or communication doesn’t work, and in order for it to work both parties have to take responsibility for their communication (assuming responsibility for, a fully capable other, is treating them like a child, and it will create resentment)

        This is true of nearly any interaction between full, and capable, adults. Just because I don’t like how I felt, or behaved, after the fact, doesn’t mean that I can absolve myself of owning my emotions. This isn’t the same as emotional disengagement, which I think is what most people confuse this for. It’s simply a recognition that one has a chioce in the matter, of feeling. This isni’t calculating, or cold, or indifferent, it’s about being open and aware to alternative, rich, and very human emotional range, a full potential… to choice.

      • Chris Howard says:

        Oh, and unfalsifiable, true. Professional pitfall, sorry ,my training is in psychology/sociology. (I used to do advertising and political PR, one first wife and a failing liver later, and it was time to change professions, something more ethical) Much of what is discussed in those disciplines, is unfalsifiable (Hence B.F. Skinner) This is true of most ethical philosophies, but that doesn’t mean that they are false, just untestable.

      • Mike McRae says:

        Well, on those grounds I fully agree. :) Science is never about absolutes anyway, but rather degrees of confidence based on observations and reasoning.

        As for it being a two-way street, absolutely. Your audience has the right – and, as you said, responsibility – to deal with their emotions. You can’t ‘make’ somebody listen or change their behaviour, even if you can tap into their emotions (ethically or not) and cause them to feel something.

        What I hope to encourage rationalists to do is see two distinct goals in rational outreach; promoting a conclusion or belief, and promoting an epistemology. The former is easy to do if the audience already engages emotionally with what you’re saying, which is probably why it is so prominent. But it is limited. The second is determining how to promote a way of thinking that will assist people in reaching that conclusion on their own. It’s a lot harder, but is far closer to skeptical values than telling people what they should or should not believe.

        On your point below, I wasn’t outright dismissing it for its non-falsifiability. My science philosophy isn’t quite Popperian enough for that. :P But it does indicate it’s not something worth discussing further.

      • Chris Howard says:

        “Popparian”, nice. ;-)

  30. Michael Kingsford Gray says:

    The fetid heap of logical fallacies that was DBAD, was aimed squarely at we rational folk who refuse to exempt the largest & most dangerous chunk of genocidal, child-rape-mongering, misogynistic, homophobic bit of woo from skepticism: Religion.

    • Jackweline says:

      …and are dicks about it, which directly counters their own efforts.

      What about those of us who refuse to exempt religion but are able not to be dicks about it? Don’t you acknowledge we exist.

      No, you’d rather imply that only you first group who exists, so it looks like you’re the only option. It’s a false dichotomy, one without which your argument would be obviously false.

  31. Bo Gardiner says:

    I applaud any invitation to greater scrutiny of ethics in one’s practices. It’s all too rare a concept, and I thank you for this, Daniel.

    For example, the line between effective, biting satire and cruelty is an ethical divide whose precise position in any given case we are morally obliged to consider carefully and refrain from crossing. No one should feel morally justified in believing it’s OK to simply say what he or she feels and let the chips fall where they may. As long as we’re communicators, we’re obliged to develop our emotional intelligence as well as our cognitive skills.

    There’s a strand of moral anarchy in skepticism, though I haven’t observed it to be greater than the general population. I shouldn’t generalize, I suppose, but perhaps it correlates with the libertarianism of some? We should monitor ourselves for it.

    DBAD, however, had two core problems. Firstly, it seemed too highly colored by the debunked hoax story on Mooney’s site of atheist science college professors viciously insulting participants at an environmental event. The story had spread a couple weeks before the talk, and was debunked shortly afterward. I’ve hoped Phil would acknowledge wryly the irony of being taken in by a hoax. Secondly, I strongly agree with those who say it sounded to be a veiled pitch for the religion exemption.

    I think this is a point we must address head on to move forward on this meta-conversation. My sense is that some are sugarcoating their support for a religion exemption, whether the challenges are civil or not, under the guise of vague talk of civility. We’re going around in circles in part for this reason.

    Supporters of a religion exempt owe the rest of us clarity as to their meaning… IF they intend to continue vague criticism of tone. They should come right out and say they want a religion exemption, take the heat, and make their case.

    And let us have a separate conversation about tone, that can guide us whether our skepticism is directed at fringe or mainstream superstition.

    • Secondly, I strongly agree with those who say [Phil Plait's TAM8 talk] sounded to be a veiled pitch for the religion exemption.

      This secretly-about-protecting-religion speculation has been raised a number of times, and I must confess that I’m confused by it. Why make this conspiratorial leap?

      Phil Plait and I have often spoken about skeptical scope and the relationship between science and religion. Our positions on those topics are matters of record. (You can read more about mine here and here, for example. In short, I think scientific skepticism should be in the business of probing empirical claims, regardless of their religious content or implications, and not in the business of metaphysical speculation — again, regardless of religion.)

      To underscore this here: I am not remotely interested in “protecting religion,” and I don’t think Phil Plait is either. In my opinion, religions are no different from any other claimants: where they make empirical claims, those claims are in scope for skeptical investigation; where they do not make empirical claims, they’re not my problem.

      The current conversations on tone and ethics are separate questions: given a scope of X, what approaches are best?

      • Jackweline says:

        It’s an intellectual cop-out. There are no arguments against raising the quality of your posts, and refraining from pointless insults and invective that the evidence suggests will only backfire on you anyway.
        But if they take the argument to be a secret plea for a religious exemption from criticism, then they can feel safe that being polite is just not an option. Even though this is a false dichotomy, as politeness =/= exemption from criticism.

        It’s a lot easier to convince yourself that other people are demanding more than they are than to stop, look at what they’re actually saying, and reconsider whether what you’ve said in the past was a mistake. Also, invective breeds the love of invective, and as fanboys of all stripes have taught us, people will defend what they love.

  32. ohduh says:

    Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason used ridicule freely; it made him very, very unpopular with the masses. OTH, this book is still a bible (sorry) to most skeptics and rationalists. Presenting your views as strongly and creatively as you can, and with a backbone, is not cause for others to blanche. Your opponents need to address the actual argument being presented and if in addressing it they wish to use ridicule to point out ridiculous things, that is their right. The religionists and new agers simply cannot make skepticism ridiculous. That’s their cross (sorry) to bear.

    But people setting themselves up as ‘leaders’ of skepticism and parsing its ‘rules’ (ha, ha) are coming close to inanity. Let’s address the multitudinous prejudice and ignorance in the world and refrain from making rules for each other, eh?

    • Chris Howard says:

      I think sarcasm assumes that the audience has a brain, that they are intelligent, and mindful. In a way I believe it is respectful. We live in a “Don’t offend” culture, but because we also live in a multi-cultural world, where nothing is isolated, it’s impossible not to offend, someone, somewhere, and at some time. Ridiculing a ridiculos idea is perfectly above board, this is not the same thing as ridiculing an individual.

      I generally hear a lot about the foolishness of subjectivism, and cultural relativism (Normative), but I’m sensing an appeal to those very ideas. Perhaps this is a misinterpretation, on my part?

      • Mike McRae says:

        I’m very much a cultural relativist. That’s not to say I’m a post-modernist, or feel that reality is determined by the observer. But there is no such thing as a philosophical perspective that lies outside of a cultural context. We’re all the product of our diverse social groups, and all beliefs need to be understood in this context for potential their strengths and weaknesses.

        I have two issues with ridiculing an idea. It is akin to hyperbole – if you need to use ridicule (or exaggerate its incongruities) in describing it to somebody, it must not be convincing enough under their epistemology for it to be worth dismissing. It also relies on convincing somebody by appealing to how they feel about an idea emotionally (i.e., it feels wrong) rather than reasonably. By that token, it’s about promoting a belief and not a way of thinking. Imagine if that same individual professed that relativity was nonsense because the idea sounded ridiculous. On one hand, they were encouraged to disbelieve in homeopathy/psychics/God because the ideas were mocked as ridiculous, yet are told that they can’t use that same epistemology to determine what is scientifically true. Hence it becomes special pleading at best, and an emotional appeal at worst…the very things rationalists should (by their own philosophy) oppose.

      • Chris Howard says:

        I’m hip to that trip, comin’ from your lip. I too am a Descrtiptive Relativist. I also agree that hyperbole, and ridicule should not be the sole reason, one rethinks an issue, but I do believe that it can make for one Hell of a hook.

        It’s interesting, I get the feeling that the people who see satire, and other appeals to emotion, as valid, perhaps not in and of themselves, but valid forms of attracting attention, and interest, still the same, have a background in entertainment, and/or marketing/advertising/PR. I wonder if I’m right? I also wonder, if true, if we’re seeing deformation professionnelle, as the French are want to call such things?

      • Mike McRae says:

        Interesting point. Yeah, I wonder if there is a correlation.

        I’m of the opinion that it’s more of a difference between ‘product driven’ and ‘process driven’ rationalism.

        Those who are product driven tend to focus on promoting their conclusions and beliefs. They’re more interested in convincing people something is nonsense or reasonable.

        The process driven are those who tend to promote an epistemology, encouraging people to develop the necessary skills and values to determine for themselves how likely it something is wrong.

        Of course, it’s not a clean split; it’s impossible to communicate a process without using products as examples, and vice versa. But there is a difference in communication styles depending on what your primary goal is.

        Mind you, there is a conflict between these approaches. Focusing on the process means you have to be prepared for people to reach a different conclusion to yours. On the other hand, focusing mostly on the product risks people embracing a belief out of a social epistemology and not a scientific one. That works fine…until somebody more charismatic wants to sell them some snake oil, and then you don’t have a leg to stand on.

        In reality there is a balance that needs to be achieved between discussing beliefs and encouraging a scientific epistemology. While I feel few rationalists disagree with that, few also give it much thought on what that balance might be, and choose instead to blindly assert things such as ‘it takes all types’ or ‘ridicule can work’ without wishing to dig much deeper than that.

  33. Bo Gardiner says:

    Goodness, I’m hardly a conspiracy theorist because I referred to veiled language in a talk (meaning, simply, to beat around the bush). Speaking of tone, that’s unnecessarily sharp.

    There are enough of us who thought that Phil was in part alluding to a religion exemption, that instead of beating us up for thinking this, why not simply straight out the confusion and make a clear statement on the point?

    So I assume, Daniel, you want to see some kind of order or structure emerge from this loose and messy conversation. Something less than rules, something more than “Don’t Be Evil.” When you ask, “given a scope of X, what approaches are best?” are you meaning you’d like to see a set of examples developed, with approach guidelines? A kind of handbook? Or a simple Statement of Ethics? What are you really hoping for here? It feels as if we’ve said all that can be said while remaining in such a high-level, overview, discussion. Yet as you know, the minute we start talking examples, no matter how fictionalized, fingers will be pointed. Can we handle that?

    • It wasn’t really my intention to be sharp; my apologies. I do, however, object to the idea (a common idea, as you say) that the DBAD conversation is in any sense an attempt to shield religion. May I ask: have I sufficiently clarified my own position on this point?

      • Bo Gardiner says:

        Apology accepted :). Yes you have clarified your own position, thanks. I wanted to go back to edit to make clear I was referring to Phil, not you, that would benefit from clarifying on the religion exemption question.

        Speaking of your position, Daniel, and speaking of ethics… My interpretation of humanist ethics, which I take very seriously, takes me further than yours. I believe you say you’d like to see the skeptical movement confine itself to empirical claims. I can understand your position, and it’s tidy because it provides a fairly clear line in the sand.

        But I believe it right, even necessary, to go further. My humanism tells me I should work to alleviate human suffering. It emphasizes that we’ve learned that reason and science are more effective tools than religion to alleviate human suffering. Religionists state that their path is more effective in alleviating human suffering. They state that our lives benefit from convincing people it’s virtuous to believe without evidence, to devalue this world in favor of the next. And so on. These are factual, empirical claims, though falsification is far harder and is rooted in fuzzier sciences like sociology, psychology, anthropology, neuroscience… And medicine.

        Empiricism does not lie solely in the physical sciences, like geology, evolutionary biology, and astronomy. So I can’t in good conscience recognize the line you’ve drawn in the sand. Yes, I recognize that my line is far blurrier than yours. But what’s at stake is so serious — the healthiest, most just, happiest sustainability of humanity and our planet — that I don’t think we’re morally justified at stopping short at a far more modest goal because it’s tidier and less controversial.

        Also, your line in the sand (presumably with matters like evolution and creationism) addresses the symptoms of rampant bad science and poor reasoning in society, but not the primary cause, which is religion. I don’t see an obvious reason why skepticism is supposed to confine itself to the symptoms without addressing the cause. There is a body of science to back us up on this. A claim may be theoretically falsifiable, but difficult in practice to falsify — I don’t think this difficulty removes it from our scope by definition.

        I think we’re going to have to live with being split on this, and try to respect one another’s positions. Does that help you understand where many of us are coming from?

      • We probably agree more than you’d suspect. Like you, I am a humanist motivated by the desire to alleviate human suffering. I see the skeptical project as something that can help with that (as by promoting science literacy or challenging false medical claims). Indeed, it is because I think skepticism is morally important work that I advocate so often for the conservative, traditional view of scientific skepticism. Skepticism can do more good — have greater credibility, teach more people more effectively, and solve more mysteries more reliably — if we do our work carefully and well, and take care to preserve skepticism’s empirical roots.

      • Chris Howard says:

        Daniel,
        Is skepticism a tool that moral, and ethical people use, or is it that skepticism is a moral, and ethical stance/philosophy, in and of itself?

        I think, what Bo, and others are trying to say is that ethics can become very difficult from a “skin in the game/rubber on the road” perspective.
        The ideal is all well and good, but what of practicle application? The Devil in the details, and all that…

        Is it wrong to want to know the details? Is this an unfair question, on my part? I know this is something you’re expressing, but do you have a well fleshed out idea, maybe not formalized, but a direction?

        BTW: thanks to everyone who challenged me, it has been an honor.

      • Is skepticism a tool that moral, and ethical people use, or is it that skepticism is a moral, and ethical stance/philosophy, in and of itself?

        In my opinion, the research / outreach project of scientific skepticism as traditionally practiced is like other academic fields (say history, or psychology, or physics, or folklore studies): there are morally good, bad, or indifferent reasons to do the work; the output from that work can have effects that are good, bad, or indifferent; but the work itself is just work. It’s a tool, as you suggest: a question-answering, fact-sharing machine. (I think it’s a tool that often does a lot of good, when used carefully.)

        The meta-conversations about ethics, scope, tone and so on take a step back and ask questions like, “As people, how do we feel this tool ought to be used?” or “How do we care for our tools so that they will remain useful?” or “How the heck does this thing work, anyway? Am I holding the right end of it?”

      • NightHiker says:

        “Also, your line in the sand (presumably with matters like evolution and creationism) addresses the symptoms of rampant bad science and poor reasoning in society, but not the primary cause, which is religion.”

        Allow me to disagree. While I don’t see eye to eye with Daniel regarding what skepticism and the scientific method can do with religious claims (the few really unfalsifiable religious claims are irrelevant, but any claim that otherwise has any effect on anyone’s life can and should be tackled), I don’t think we can assign religion the status of “cause”. To me it’s simply another of the “symptoms” you mentioned, and the real cause is our own and natural proclivity for credulity. Religion just hijacks our own very fallible “natural” reasoning processes, like Astrology or UFOs. It just happens to have a much bigger “fan base” than those. So, while we can (and sometimes must) tackle religious claims when it’s worthwhile (as far as our resources and the impact of our actions allow), I suspect it’s a somewhat counterproductive strategy.

        That’s why emotion is key to this discussion. Since emotional response modulates our learning processes, to confront religion right on is like trying to wrestle a bull by the horns. I think it’s much more useful to take advantage of the element of surprise – that is, teaching logic and rational reasoning without mentioning such beliefs when possible, and slowly, covertly, erode their foundations from the inside. Let people grow out of religion, or astrology, or whatever, by themselves, with the tools you gave them.

        That means avoiding to ridicule or offend gratuitously, so we don’t elicit that negative, self-defensive emotional response that would prevent our teachings to be slowly, but properly, assimilated. That is, of course, if our goal is to really change people’s minds.

      • Bo Gardiner says:

        Well, I agree that our credulous nature is a more ultimate cause than science, of course, but religion remains a huge penultimate one. Some serious low-hanging fruit. Our credulous nature, while a cause, is in turn a symptom of this n’that evolutionary mechanisms… and it’s turtles all the way down… So I’m not really seeing the disagreement much there.

        You’re presenting the other problem many of us have with Phil’s talk, the false dichotomy between your “teaching logic and rational reasoning without mentioning such beliefs,” and “avoiding to ridicule or offend gratuitously.”

        There’s a world in between. We should be talking about how to negotiate that world, instead of these false dichotomies.

        Your approach is indeed the primary way we want to do this, and are doing this. But we disagree it’s best to use this strategy alone. There are times when the bull’s horns must in fact be grabbed. At such times, of course, we should strive never to ridicule or offend gratuitously.

        But satire has proven itself to be far too powerful a tool by every major movement for social progress humanity has ever seen. Why our movement, as important as any other, should uniquely cripple ourselves in such fashion makes no sense to me.

        Movement leaders are often understandably tempted, when the wave that propelled them forward has done all it can for them, to push back against their own movement in order to be more personally acceptable to VIPs.

        At such times, yours, I say respectfully, is the precise language that has always been used historically to put a lid on important movements. Fortunately for all of us such calls were disregarded.

      • NightHiker says:

        Bo,

        I don’t see a dichotomy at all, true or false, so I fail to grasp what is exactly your point of contention – after all, you said yourself that even on those situations we may want or need to use satire (not exactly the same as ridicule, though), we still should strive to not do it gratuitously, which happens to be exactly what I suggested…

        I don’t know how you can get from “avoiding to gratuitously ridicule or offend someone” to “avoid humor or satire at all”. Satire is not gratuitous by it’s very definition, by the way. If something is gratuitous, then it’s not satire.

        So whether our approach is serious or humorous, it may be equally valid, as long as it’s not done with the intent to ridicule for the sake of ridiculing (which can also be done in a serious manner). I have used humor many times to good effect, but on those cases my intent was to laugh with the audience, not laugh at them.

        Mike has already addressed any gaps that might be left here with his comment about conflicting goals.

  34. Chris Howard says:

    This is pretty cool, and I’m not just saying that because Tom more clearly, and eloquently, communicates a similar opinion to my own. Enjoy: http://dubitoergo.blogspot.com/ The Letter to the Skeptic Community, regarding this “schism”

    • Tom Foss says:

      Thanks for the praise, Chris. But (not to make this a circle-jerk of mutual praise or anything) I think Don’s put this whole “some methods are unethical/dickish/unacademic/unprofessional” debate in the proper perspective here.

  35. Chris Howard says:

    and by “The Letter to teh Skeptic Community”, I mean “Dear Skeptical Community”

  36. Bo Gardiner says:

    Skepticism is a tool, definitely. For those of us who are humanists, humanism sets the goals (improvement in human society and the planet), and skepticism is our tool.

    But skepticism is also something greater, because it’s a tool used not just by humanists, by people of numerous different philosophies and lifestances. It represents a subset of values shared by those groups, so magnetic that it’s creating societies all over the world. And we seek no less than the overthrow of the world. Bwa-ha-ha.

    But seriously… for these reasons I think skepticism deserves the title of “Movement.” So we have lower-case skepticism, the tool, and upper-case Skepticism, the Movement.

  37. Chris Howard says:

    Bo,
    So, we’re talking about making the movement “ethical”, no?

    • Bo Gardiner says:

      Chris, I don’t believe it’s currently unethical.

      I think it should remain ethical, and strive toward being ever more ethical.

      I wouldn’t want anyone in our movement who disputes that second sentence. Period. I know we’re not all humanists here, but I’ll impose my humanist values that far. So there :)

      I’m aware we’ve got a few fringe people who don’t give a damn about ethics. As in any human institution. Likewise, I know we’ve got a larger number who say they care, but in practice don’t think about it, or have so mastered their cognitive dissonance they can self-justify anything and everything.

      Our opponents will always use non-representative voices like these to create prejudice about us. That is the way of bigots. There’s not a lot we can do about that, other than not sink to their level — never prejudge a person’s worth based on his or her beliefs.

      The worst thing we can do, out of kneejerk fear of this inevitability, is rein back our entire movement.

      NightHiker,

      I’m not sure how I can be more clear, but I’ll try. The false dichotomy you presented, which I have heard from a few other skeptics, is this. I’ll summarize, at the risk of putting words in your mouth.

      To be effective, and ethical, we must choose between:

      a) not mentioning those beliefs out loud that we are in fact challenging (which you took so far as to include astrology!)

      or

      b) offend gratuitously.

      We can, and often must, “mention” the beliefs we are in fact challenging without offending gratuitously. Other times, it can go quietly unsaid.

      But to me it’s disingenuous to try to run the whole movement as a kind of sneak attack.

      We absolutely benefit from minimizing their offense within reason, but can’t avoid it completely. Those who can’t take that heat should get out of the kitchen.

      Daniel,

      What next? I know this will be a little controversial, but I don’t see why it should be: I would recommend we have a statement of principles, that includes ethical principles. I would volunteer to help draft it, help facilitate consensus. Anybody who wishes can weigh in. Since we’re just a loose affiliation, and I think we want to stay that way, it will be unofficial. We can throw it up on a separate website, ask groups to link to it, and include a discussion area. Some would call us self-appointed rulers or police, but we would do not ruling or policing, so no worries there.

      It’s a win-win. You and Phil, et al, can feel good knowing you spurred this. We in the “opposing camp” can feel good knowing we made a pre-emptive strike by making the proposal. Please take this statement with the warm heart it was said. Imagine hearing this from me in person, as we laugh over beers, OK?

      • NightHiker says:

        Bo,

        I must be a reeeeally bad communicator, because I thought I was very clear, but seemingly I cannot make myself understood if my life depended on it.

        First, right there I said there are times we should and must confront the beliefs right on (although I explained it that brings difficulties). Examples might be when we are on the verge of having some individual liberty taken away, or when there’s risk of imminent harm.

        Then I explained what I see as the ideal way of “teaching to fish”, so to speak, that is trying to impart on people the knowledge about the proper tools of reasoning within the constraints of our reality, and that we should apply it whenever possible. Then let them use those tools to get rid of the nonsense themselves, which is probably the only way of preventing they won’t fall for the next nonsense once they abandon one.

        And finally I explained that we should avoid to be confrontational just for the sake of it (in other words, on situations we didn’t need to be, other than, obviously, the situations I mentioned where we must).

        I honestly can’t see how you jump to your conclusion of a false dichotomy from that. Unless, of course, that you think there are times we should directly confront the beliefs even when we don’t need to do so. Then we would be in disagreement, but there’s still no dichotomy.

        Maybe in this case you’re seeing a bird where there is none. ;)

        In short: If you can’t avoid it, confront the belief. If you can, maybe it’s more efficient to teach the underlying tools of thought instead (this is the core of the discussion, which we should be but are not having: is this true? Is it not?). And under no condition offend or ridicule for the sake of it, at the risk of making the task of those trying to teach skepticism much, much harder (even satire is created with a very specific objective. Like I said, if it’s gratuitous ridicule, it’s not satire).

  38. Mike McRae says:

    Tom Foss writes:

    “I’m not, because ultimately when I write, I write for me.”

    I’ve come across similar statements to this one a few times, both here and in students I’ve taught. My usual response is ‘why did you choose such a medium?’. I understand writing for the joy of it, and do it a lot. I won’t publish it because that’s not its purpose. But when somebody does take an opportunity to present their work to an audience, be it in electronic, print or even vocal formats, I find it almost paradoxical for them to say they’re not doing it to be heard.

    “Are you saying that every poem, every work of fiction, every letter and blog post, every diary or journal entry, every tweet on Twitter and Facebook status update is written to convince someone about something?”

    Everything? No, not necessarily. And as I said in the post you responded to, there is a debate about the relationship between art and communication. However I’d say in most cases, if somebody is presenting information to an audience, they’re doing so with an intent for that information to be faithfully received, even if that isn’t an explicit intention. For instance, how many of those same people would truly be just as content with simply writing those same tweets, blogs or Facebook comments in a personal diary, as opposed to putting it up for others to read? The very fact they’ve chosen that medium says something about what drives them to communicate.

    “Your further commentary is pretty absurd as well; “self-serving ridicule” isn’t communication? I think a crowd of Kent Hovind audience members would disagree.”

    Of course it’s communication. But the question is a matter of who the target audience is? Are you ridiculing a person to make them feel bad? In which case the choice of medium is selected to convey emotional information, wishing to make somebody feel shame over their actions. Is the audience indirect? In which case, the goal is to consolidate their sense of community, with words chosen to make people feel better for not being the person being ridiculed.

    “Perhaps what you two are saying makes sense to Communication Theorists, but your message has broken down on the way to receivers who are using the terms as the vast majority of people use them.”

    I’d venture that most people give little thought to what defines communication. I get the feeling you’re defining it only as the medium, without a context of why it was chosen or how it is received. You’ve explained a single aspect of the drive to communicate (such as a joy of talking), but on its own it is one dimensional and lacking meaning. Why do people choose the words they do? The subject? The context? I agree there are people who like to write because they enjoy the challenge or the aesthetics. But people share because there is meaning or emotion they wish other people to have as well.

    • Tom Foss says:

      But when somebody does take an opportunity to present their work to an audience, be it in electronic, print or even vocal formats, I find it almost paradoxical for them to say they’re not doing it to be heard.

      You may find it paradoxical. Shockingly, people often are. In many cases, write purely because I enjoy it. I post it because I know other people might also enjoy it. If they do, great. If they don’t, whatever. There are some posts I write where, yeah, I want people to read it. I submit those to carnivals, I get a little disappointed when no one comments. But there are other posts I write because I like writing and I have something to say, whether it’s venting or talking about Superman. And on those posts, I really don’t care about comments or hit counts.

      As to the choice of medium, you’re presupposing that “not making the writing public” is the default position, and that you have to have a reason to make the writings public. Why would that necessarily be the case? If there are thoughts I have a reason to keep private, then I can accomplish that by keeping them in my head. The act of setting something down in text, whether in a locked diary, a private letter, or a public blog post, is effectively de-privatizing it, even if you hope no one reads it.

      I enjoy writing, and I recognize that whether I set something down on the Internet or in a padlocked journal, that there’s a good chance someone will read what I’ve written. That’s why the things I write are either things I want to be read, or things that I don’t care if people read. My letter to the skeptical community? That, I’d like people to read. My Facebook status update that’s just a quote of lyrics from “Lime in the Coconut”? That, I don’t care so much.

      For instance, how many of those same people would truly be just as content with simply writing those same tweets, blogs or Facebook comments in a personal diary, as opposed to putting it up for others to read? The very fact they’ve chosen that medium says something about what drives them to communicate.

      Not necessarily. The choice of medium need not be related to the things one wants to communicate; sometimes the choice of medium is more practical or irrational. I have a Facebook account because everyone I know has a Facebook account, and it’s a convenient way to keep in touch with people. I have a Twitter account for much the same reason, but I find the limitations Twitter puts on content to be maddeningly restrictive, because I tend to be verbose. In those cases, I haven’t chosen the medium because of the content I wish to write; in fact, the things I write on those media are determined by the constraints of the medium. My Facebook status updates tend to be pithy and information-lite, usually song lyrics or something. My tweets tend to be glib and blunt, sometimes jokes, sometimes attempts at something more meaningful, but rarely anything particularly thoughtful, because the medium doesn’t allow for it. Blogger is much less restrictive, and so I can write there whatever I want. But even in that case, I chose the medium because it was popular and intuitive to use, not necessarily because I thought it was the best avenue for the things I wanted to say.

      Is the audience indirect? In which case, the goal is to consolidate their sense of community, with words chosen to make people feel better for not being the person being ridiculed.

      Or to make them see the person being ridiculed as…ridiculous.

      I’d venture that most people give little thought to what defines communication. I get the feeling you’re defining it only as the medium, without a context of why it was chosen or how it is received.

      Um…no. I’m defining communication as “the act or process of communicating; the imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs.” You know, the definition of “communication” outside of jargon.

      You’ve explained a single aspect of the drive to communicate (such as a joy of talking), but on its own it is one dimensional and lacking meaning. Why do people choose the words they do? The subject? The context? I agree there are people who like to write because they enjoy the challenge or the aesthetics. But people share because there is meaning or emotion they wish other people to have as well.

      I agree. The point I was making is that people communicate for more reasons than just “to achieve consensus,” and that there are reasons to write beyond that, contrary to what NightHiker was saying.

      • NightHiker says:

        Tom,

        “The point I was making is that people communicate for more reasons than just “to achieve consensus,” and that there are reasons to write beyond that, contrary to what NightHiker was saying.”

        I have not said that either. I have said that the intent to achieve consensus is implied in the attempt at communication, and not that it was the ONLY reason people try to communicate. It’s obvious that when people reach out for others, there are usually multiple reasons – my claim is that achieving consensus in some shape or form is, even if unconsciously, always one of such reasons.

        “I’m defining communication as “the act or process of communicating; the imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs.””

        Do you realize that “imparting” in that context means “offering knowledge”? If the person doesn’t understand you, then you have imparted nothing. Knowledge only exists when there is understanding, and understanding demands a minimum amount of common ground, of commonality of thought, or, in other words, some consensus.

      • Mike McRae says:

        Actually, I’d argue consensus is the only goal of communication. I can’t think of a single example of an act of communication where the transmitter acts with the intention of their information to be received with less than full fidelity, whether it is raw content, emotional, contextual or whatever. It might not be explicit, but if you stop to consider any situation where there is a communicator, a medium and an audience, there is going to be a drive governing the act of information transfer and the choice of media. Even if that drive is just to share an emotional state, this will still impact on how the process occurs.

        There are some who argue there are situations where transmission is done without care of the receivership. I can paint my sad mood and truly not care if you view it and feel happy, for example. And I have heard people argue this is still communication. Unfortunately the word then becomes empty and useless at describing much of anything.

      • NightHiker says:

        I agree with you, Mike. What I’m trying to say is that reaching consensus is the underlying reason, while on the surface there may be various other, more circumstantial reasons for people to communicate.

      • Tom Foss says:

        I have said that the intent to achieve consensus is implied in the attempt at communication, and not that it was the ONLY reason people try to communicate. It’s obvious that when people reach out for others, there are usually multiple reasons – my claim is that achieving consensus in some shape or form is, even if unconsciously, always one of such reasons.

        There sure is a thin line between “asserting unconscious reasons behind people’s actions” and circular reasoning.

        Knowledge only exists when there is understanding, and understanding demands a minimum amount of common ground, of commonality of thought, or, in other words, some consensus.

        Which affirms something I said above: that you’re using “communication” and “consensus” as jargon terms, not as general ones. Because I–and I’m sure Don–interpret “consensus” to mean “general agreement; group solidarity in sentiment and belief.” When we say that the general consensus among scientists is that global climate change is real and human-caused, we don’t mean that they have “a minimum amount of common ground.”

      • NightHiker says:

        “Because I–and I’m sure Don–interpret “consensus” to mean “general agreement; group solidarity in sentiment and belief.” ”

        Oh… I see what you have done there. You have tried to lump the two meanings of the word as if they were the same thing, while conveniently avoiding our critique about your lack of understanding of your very own definition. “Group solidarity in sentiment or belief” is NOT “general agreement”. As Mike said, you’re trying to argue about something you clearly have not given much thought, and you can’t possibly be trying to defend that it’s our fault that you didn’t.

        The only thing it “proves” is that it’s impossible to try to communicate with someone who obviously is not interested in doing so. It’s also intriguing to see someone who is so reticent to expand his own understanding of the topics being discussed calling other people “arrogant”. It looks like you have your very own definition for that word too.

        I give up. Go “communicate” as you please.

      • Tom Foss says:

        Oh… I see what you have done there. You have tried to lump the two meanings of the word as if they were the same thing, while conveniently avoiding our critique about your lack of understanding of your very own definition.

        No, actually, I’ve placed a semicolon between the two definitions, separating them. I recognize that they don’t mean the same thing, though they are related. What I further recognize (and what you apparently don’t, as I mentioned below) is that “solidarity in sentiment or belief” is not the same thing as “feeling together.” I could delve further into the dictionary, I suppose, but the relevant point is that actual solidarity and a feeling of solidarity are distinct things.

        I’ll leave aside the various ironies of the rest of your comment; I certainly wouldn’t want to get into a discussion about the meaning of that word.

      • Mike McRae says:

        “I post it because I know other people might also enjoy it. If they do, great. If they don’t, whatever.”

        So you write things and share them in the hope that others might find an emotional connection with the information, right? That is a consensus, believe it or not. They agree with what you’re saying, or are even challenged by it (i.e., it contrasted with their thoughts and the information had enough worth to be compared with their own preexisting thoughts). In either case, the very act of sharing is not done with the intention of being ignored. That might be of low consequence, but as you’ve just admitted, you share because others might find resonance with that information. That is a consensus.

        “In those cases, I haven’t chosen the medium because of the content I wish to write; in fact, the things I write on those media are determined by the constraints of the medium.”

        Your choice of medium is indeed determined by its constraints. That’s true. You probably wouldn’t use Facebook to quit your job. You wouldn’t send a letter by post to let your wife know you’ll be late from work. You wouldn’t use Twitter to deliver a presidential speech. You choose an appropriate medium based on the content you wish to communicate for the very reason you just outlined.

        If you wish to make a glib statement, then fine, Twitter’s great. But you can’t tell me that you didn’t want to make a glib statement that would be read by a particular audience. The very fact you did so means you a) had information to communicate (glib statement) and b) reasoned Twitter would be a reasonable medium for it.

        ““the act or process of communicating; the imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs.””

        Let’s look at what you’ve written here. ‘Imparting or interchange…’. The former meaning a transfer of something, such as information, from one point to another (i.e., transmitter, medium and receiver). The latter meaning a transfer and return (where the receiver in turn becomes a transmitter). Unless you have a different definition of impart and interchange. I stand by my claim that few people give much thought to what defines communication.

        “The point I was making is that people communicate for more reasons than just “to achieve consensus,” and that there are reasons to write beyond that.”

        Yet it’s been explained what consensus means, and you’ve not shown how communication can be intended to not have this as its goal. You can claim ‘jargon’ all you like, but the reason why it’s broken down in this fashion is because people have stopped to dissect the term and ask how it functions. I’ve got no problem if you disagree, but disagreeing on the basis of a colloquial understanding of a topic is no different to somebody dismissing evolution because it’s full of big words.

        Even if you write for people to share your appreciation of a concept, it is aiming for a consensus. As I said earlier, artists often claim to transmit information without truly caring about how it is received, which is arguable in terms of whether it is a form of communication at all.

      • Tom Foss says:

        So you write things and share them in the hope that others might find an emotional connection with the information, right?

        No. Please try reading what I actually wrote, as opposed to quote-mining to fit your preconceived notions.

        You choose an appropriate medium based on the content you wish to communicate for the very reason you just outlined.

        Again, your reading comprehension needs some work. In some cases, as in the ones you outline, the medium is indeed chosen due to the content of the message. In other situations, such as the ones I outlined, the medium is chosen for other reasons, and dictates the sorts of content which can be transmitted.

        I stand by my claim that few people give much thought to what defines communication.

        I’m beginning to think that some people give it too much thought.

        Tell me, Mike: is writing in a diary “communication”?

        Yet it’s been explained what consensus means,

        If consensus had been explained in terms of what you and Nighthiker meant by it before I posted the comment to which you replied, I certainly didn’t see it.

        You can claim ‘jargon’ all you like, but the reason why it’s broken down in this fashion is because people have stopped to dissect the term and ask how it functions.

        That’s great, for those who actually know about said terminological dissections. But when you enter a discussion using words that have common meanings which differ from their connotations in professional circles, you risk (and have run into) a communication breakdown if you do not make sure that the definitions are clear from the beginning.

        I’ve got no problem if you disagree, but disagreeing on the basis of a colloquial understanding of a topic is no different to somebody dismissing evolution because it’s full of big words.

        I’ll be sure to use small ones here then: for people who seem to know an awful lot about communication, you and Nighthiker aren’t very good at it. If either of you had bothered to define terms at the beginning–or even at the point where the miscommunication became clear, several comments ago–then we could have avoided this entire thing. Yes, if we define “consensus” as ‘the minimum amount of commonality required to understand each other’, then communication requires it.

        I would think, in a community where we throw around arcane latin phrases and have to spend a sizable chunk of many arguments defining the word “theory,” that the importance of defining terms early on would be obvious.

  39. Tom Foss says:

    Nighthiker:

    You really need to read things more carefully. I said I didn’t believe him and why, not that he didn’t believe what he was saying.

    I apologize. Let me be more clear: telling someone that you don’t believe their self-reported statements about their own feelings, then proceeding to say that after you have done some self-criticism of yourself that you are thus qualified to speak authoritatively on what everyone wants, even when confronted with evidence to the contrary (which is at least as valid as the ‘evidence’ you collected through self-reflection) is the very height of arrogance.

    Now, about writing to yourself… Why do you put it on your blog instead of a drawer?

    I covered this in the comment with Mike, but I’ll reiterate: why is “privacy” considered the default? If I have private thoughts, I think them in my head, where they’re private. I enjoy writing, and writing deprivatizes the thoughts by necessity. If I don’t care that they’re somewhat public, why should I care if they’re totally public?

    Writing is not necessarily communicating. If there’s no recipient, then there’s no communication, by default. However, if you make your writings available by some means, there is at least the presumption of a potential audience.

    I would say that any writer of anything should presume that there will be some audience. It would certainly save a lot of embarrassment for youngsters with diaries.

    You are correct, though, in saying there’s not always intent to reach consensus, as there is one mode of communication where sender and receiver don’t even need to know each other or even be alive at the same time. Even then, though, the receiver has to have enough in common with the sender to comprehend where he’s coming from.

    Okay, and? The whole point that was being argued was the consensus one, which was either so ill-defined that only the communication majors here knew what it meant, or which has been conceded. Sounds like the discussion’s over.

    We are not, however, speaking about unintentional communication, but about how to best communicate with others when we want to do so.

    “Best” is a subjective quality based entirely on context and goal. I barely even see the need for a discussion, in that case. It’s like arguing which is better between chocolate ice cream, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and a can opener.

    Oh, it is communication all right.

    I agree. Which is why I thought the either/or implied by “self-serving ridicule of others…easier to achieve than actually trying to communicate” was absurd.

    • NightHiker says:

      “then proceeding to say that after you have done some self-criticism of yourself that you are thus qualified to speak authoritatively on what everyone wants, even when confronted with evidence to the contrary (which is at least as valid as the ‘evidence’ you collected through self-reflection)”

      What evidence to the contrary? His belief that he did not care whether anyone agreed with him or not? When I mentioned self-criticism, I was talking about what triggered the conclusion, not that it was the “evidence”. My understanding of the issue comes from a lot of reading about how our minds work, from the psychological to the physiological approach. I can be wrong, obviously, but my evidence goes far beyond subjective perception.

      “Okay, and? The whole point that was being argued was the consensus one, which was either so ill-defined that only the communication majors here knew what it meant, or which has been conceded. Sounds like the discussion’s over.”

      Consensus doesn’t mean only “agreement”, which is the point I’m trying to make. It also means “group solidarity in sentiment and belief”, or, in short, a sort of “feeling together”, which was the literal meaning of “consentire”, the Latin term from which it’s derived. And that is not just for communication majors, but a common definition from dictionaries. So, by simply agreeing to find enough common ground to communicate, you are already reaching for some sort of consensus.

      Maybe instead of deciding what things should mean from gut feeling or common sense, it would be in order for you to properly study the subject, if you want to discuss it. And yes, I am being “dickish” now, but not because I think it works – it only happens that this lack of interest to reach consensus from your part is quite frustrating.

      (By the way, declaring the discussion is over while admitting no knowledge of the matter besides common sense is not arrogance at all…)

      ““Best” is a subjective quality based entirely on context and goal. I barely even see the need for a discussion, in that case.”

      That has been dealt with several times on this thread and Daniel’s previous post and respective commentary section. There’s no pointing in repeating it if you already missed it more than once.

      “Which is why I thought the either/or implied by “self-serving ridicule of others…easier to achieve than actually trying to communicate” was absurd.”

      Easier than trying to communicate with the part being ridiculed. I believe I was very clear about that, and stand by my point.

      • Tom Foss says:

        What evidence to the contrary? His belief that he did not care whether anyone agreed with him or not?

        Yes. Absent some really solid fMRI data or a really in-depth psychological profile, the only data you have from which to draw a conclusion about an individual’s motivations are their self-reported statements about their motivations.

        When I mentioned self-criticism, I was talking about what triggered the conclusion, not that it was the “evidence”. My understanding of the issue comes from a lot of reading about how our minds work, from the psychological to the physiological approach. I can be wrong, obviously, but my evidence goes far beyond subjective perception.

        Ah, so by reading about how minds work in general, and by doing that bit of self-criticism, you’re able to state what motivates one individual in particular, with more authority than that individual can claim over their own motivations, based solely on a few decontextualized comments, which give no insight whatsoever into how much said individual has read into the same topics.

        Glad we’ve cleared up that whole arrogance thing.

        Consensus doesn’t mean only “agreement”, which is the point I’m trying to make.

        Actually, if you had made that point earlier, the discussion would have been over then.

        It also means “group solidarity in sentiment and belief”, or, in short, a sort of “feeling together”, which was the literal meaning of “consentire”, the Latin term from which it’s derived.

        Two things: one, “group solidarity in sentiment and belief” and “a sort of ‘feeling together’” are not synonymous. One speaks to the fact that the group shares sentiments and beliefs, the other speaks to a feeling of camaraderie that people would get from having that solidarity. Related, but not the same thing, and certainly not “in short.”

        Second, while etymology is interesting, it isn’t relevant in discussing what the derived terms currently mean.

        And that is not just for communication majors, but a common definition from dictionaries.

        Indeed it is. And yet, when I communicate, I often am not seeking “general agreement” or “group solidarity in sentiment or belief.” Regardless of what motives you would ascribe to my unconscious mind through your expertise in deducing particular situations from general knowledge.

        So, by simply agreeing to find enough common ground to communicate, you are already reaching for some sort of consensus.

        Right, as long as by “consensus” you mean “common ground.” Which is not what the word means, by either of the definitions you cited.

        Maybe instead of deciding what things should mean from gut feeling or common sense, it would be in order for you to properly study the subject, if you want to discuss it.

        Oh yes, I’m going to take a lecture on proper study from someone who thinks doing some reading on the mind qualifies him to state what any given individual’s motives are. It works so well for the theists who tell me that I actually know God exists and only deny it so I can live a hedonistic lifestyle.

        Once again: perhaps if you wish to communicate with others, you should define the terms that you’re playing Humpty-Dumpty with so that you can achieve enough common ground that the knowledge you’re trying to impart will be understood in such a way that interchange is able to occur.

        (By the way, declaring the discussion is over while admitting no knowledge of the matter besides common sense is not arrogance at all…)

        I’ll take your word for it, since you seem to be the expert.

        But because I love to belabor a point:

        If you don’t start with the intent to reach consensus, then there’s no point in trying to communicate.
        [...]
        but consensus is the ultimate, ideal goal of any communication effort.
        [...]
        You are correct, though, in saying there’s not always intent to reach consensus,

        Since the point on which we disagreed was whether or not consensus is the ultimate goal of any communication (regardless of what either term means), and since you said that “there’s not always intent to reach consensus,” in what way is that not the end of the disagreement?

        That has been dealt with several times on this thread and Daniel’s previous post and respective commentary section. There’s no pointing in repeating it if you already missed it more than once.

        Ah, reading comprehension, how I lament thy death.

        I believe I was very clear about that, and stand by my point.

        You may think you believe that, but the truth is…

      • NightHiker says:

        “It works so well for the theists who tell me that I actually know God exists and only deny it so I can live a hedonistic lifestyle.”

        Of course. After all, we have no evidence that the mind exists or about how it works, and such general understanding can never be applied to individual minds. Also, people are never mistaken about their own feelings and never fool themselves to believe things that make they feel like they’re in control of their actions. I don’t even know why there is a field of “psychology”, since it’s so clearly a futile enterprise.

        Also, you once more conveniently put my phrase out of context – the only situation I said there was no intent to reach consensus was, obviously, unintentional communication, where someone writes something not expecting it to reach other people (i.e. like a book of poems found posthumously). In that case, the person isn’t even expecting to communicate, even less reach a consensus. It’s not your case.

        But as I said bellow, I give up. This is not going anywhere.

      • Tom Foss says:

        Of course. After all, we have no evidence that the mind exists or about how it works, and such general understanding can never be applied to individual minds. Also, people are never mistaken about their own feelings and never fool themselves to believe things that make they feel like they’re in control of their actions. I don’t even know why there is a field of “psychology”, since it’s so clearly a futile enterprise.

        Yes, because we all know that things which are generally true about large populations are therefore true in all particular situations fof all individuals, and that psychology is done by amateurs judging people based on brief blog comments.

        I’m not saying that people are never mistaken or lying about their motivations, nor am I saying that cognitive neuroscience cannot tell us about how minds work and how people think. What I am saying is that you have no grounds to authoritatively dismiss anyone’s self-reported motivations when you have no specific evidence relevant to the individual case.

        In that case, the person isn’t even expecting to communicate, even less reach a consensus. It’s not your case.

        Yes, I get it. When we define “communication” in such a way as to exclude anything that doesn’t fit the argument, and when we define “consensus” in such a way as to mean “the common ground necessary for communication to occur,” then consensus is a necessary component of communication and a necessary goal of the act of initiating communication. Congratulations, it’s a tautology.

        Regardless, you haven’t addressed what I think is the substantive point in the value judgment that inspired me to post in the first place (i.e., “If you have no expectation whatsoever that something you say will have the least effect on the receiver, why would you bother to do it?” and so forth): why is “private” the default setting? Just because I write in public does not mean I expect to have an audience, or that I am trying to communicate to said audience which may or may not exist, or that I care whether or not I feel (or indeed actually possess) any solidarity with that audience or hope they agree with me. You assume that writing publicly requires that one care about whether or not they have an audience, and your value judgments (why not throw it in a drawer?) are based on that assumption. That you cannot imagine that others would not share that assumption is not a validation of your judgment.

      • NightHiker says:

        Tom Foss,

        First of all, allow me to apologize for losing my temper yesterday. I had a very tiresome day, and coming here and seeing your seemingly impermeable attitude was simply too frustrating at the time. That’s no justification, however, and I should know better.

        Now, let’s look at your claims (I’ll answer them in a different order than you presented).

        “When we define “communication” in such a way as to exclude anything that doesn’t fit the argument, and when we define “consensus” in such a way as to mean “the common ground necessary for communication to occur,” then consensus is a necessary component of communication and a necessary goal of the act of initiating communication. Congratulations, it’s a tautology.”

        You keep affirming we are “redefining” communication, but that was never the case. Actually, we have shown that the definition you presented (“the act or process of communicating; the imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs.”), and thought was different, was exactly the same we were using, as long as you don’t assign some different meaning to “impart” and “interchange” than their general usage. So it looks as if you are the one trying to redefine “communication” while pointing fingers at us.

        “I’m not saying that people are never mistaken or lying about their motivations, nor am I saying that cognitive neuroscience cannot tell us about how minds work and how people think. What I am saying is that you have no grounds to authoritatively dismiss anyone’s self-reported motivations when you have no specific evidence relevant to the individual case.”

        This is were you’re mistaken. There are many things we can say about people that apply to a high degree of certainty to anyone. For example, I can say that you will think about “elephant” as soon as you read that word, as long as you understand what “elephant” means. That’s something you have no control about, because reading that word will trigger unconscious processes, and everything related to “elephant” in your brain will start to light up even before you consciously understand the word. It’s that unconscious chain that actually allows you to understand the word. That’s not a matter of your opinion regarding what you feel, but a matter of brain chemistry.

        Although not to the same extent or as simply, the behavior or attitude I’m talking about also happens at least to some degree on that very same unconscious, physical level. I’m not trying to predict what is his favorite book, or food, or how will he vote next election (although with enough information I could make educated guesses). Let’s get back at his exact claim:

        “My claim is more along the lines of “I don’t care if people agree with me.” I’ll say my piece and people can take it or leave it or completely ignore it.”

        If he had further qualified that statement, and said “sometimes I don’t care if people agree”, or “I don’t care if some people agree”, I would hardly have any problem with it. The problem is that he offered it seemingly as an all encompassing, ever present trait of his. That’s were I raised issues. Why?

        Because research into how our brain works, including functional imaging, has shown that when we encounter agreement, it triggers the region of the brain which is attached to hedonic rewards. I didn’t bother to look for specific research because that was a given to me from all I’ve read on the subject, but last night I conducted a simple search on Google and found this:

        http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/1006/10061701

        It’s just one research, so of course it’s not anywhere definitive, but it’s conclusion corroborates my take.

        Now, of course there are specific settings that influence how much importance we give to what other people think. For example, it generally correlates to what is our perceived value of that person to begin with. So, if we do not care about someone at all, or even despise her or him, then we very likely won’t care if that person agrees with us or not.

        But Don didn’t offer any such qualifier. He simple said he doesn’t care if people agree, period. That’s something I can hardly believe, unless, as I said, he is clinically depressed, which would actually affect how such process happens at a synaptic level, or has some personality or affective disorder.

        Even yourself didn’t say something like that – at most you implied that you are not always looking for agreement.

        And lastly, there’s also something else we can be reasonably certain about someone in such discussions. When the person is genuinely interested in debating and maybe expanding his understanding of the matter at hand, he shows some effort to, at the very least, understand what you are talking about. He will make further inquiries into your positions, asks for further evidence, etc. Don did that himself, and another example is Chris Howard. We might not completely agree, but they seemed to be interested on what I had to say and didn’t dismiss it outright.

        I never claimed to be a perfect communicator. To the contrary, I’m always trying to improve my communication skills and my domain of English, which is not my native language. But when someone comes to the discussion and tries to take advantage of any situation to nit pick your arguments and dismiss then outright, without ever actually demanding further qualification, it is also a good indicator he’s not looking for a debate and has his position pretty set.

        You didn’t ask me where or how I got my evidence, all you did was pretty much try to disqualify me as an interlocutor (“you’re an amateur so you can’t possibly know what you’re talking about”), and offer your personal thoughts, which, by the way, accompanied no evidence whatsoever outside of anecdote, about what communication entails, and which contradicted even the definition you provided yourself.

        So, yes, I will own up to my lack of communication skills and maybe too brittle a temper – but you didn’t help much there.

  40. Bo Gardiner says:

    I’m a birder, and here’s the kind of thing I had in mind for a statement of principles, which could be broad, or a narrower statement of ethics:

    Principles of Birding Ethics

    I know it seems at first blush a lame parallel, but not really. Nobody appointed the American Birding Association (ABA) rulers, and of course no birder needs to join the ABA to birdwatch, or be outspoken in bird conservation. They just did it, and it entered the consciousness of the birding community, most of whom are not ABA members. The birding community is very diverse, far more than the skeptical community — from anarchic misanthropes, evangelicals, New Agers, rightwingers, lefties, commies, you name it. Yet you very rarely hear complaints about the ABA being presumptuous in posting these. By no means is there 100% consensus on all points, but we take pride in what it says about us, and it provides utterly crucial framework and foundation for the many questions that arise.

    There are countless birding forums, and heated ethical problems frequently arise (e.g. “is it okay to play tapes to draw a bird out during nesting season?”) Without the statement as a rough guideline, we’d never make progress in these debates.

  41. “Skepticism” is not a well-defined field of study like biology, history, math, medicine, physics and their ilk. It isn’t a community of like minded people, like “Foodies” or “Yankees Fans.” It is definitely not a religion or philosophy, like Mormonism, Buddhism, Zoroaster, or Existentialism. We can ask about ethics in academia, sports, religion – because these things are focused enough that there can be answers.

    Skepticism is an approach, or way of thinking about things (like “evidence based reasoning”), so the question “What is the ethics of skepticism?” just does not ‘compute’ for me. It would be like asking about the ethics of art.

    It would be hard to discuss and impossible to agree on a artists’ code of ethics. We probably couldn’t get consensus answer to “What is art?”, since the field is so vast with amateurs and professionals; with creators, consumers and critics; and with as many different purposes, agendas and perspectives as there are people. Any rule which is proposed will offend at least one of ‘the art community.’

    • Bo Gardiner says:

      Wouldn’t everything you’ve said apply to my example as well?

    • Mike McRae says:

      And yet wouldn’t an artist have a right to discuss the ethics of one goes about their art? Or how their art is used/paid for/copied? Intellectual property and the place for creative ‘borrowing’ of another’s work are currently huge ethical issues in the artist community, for instance?

      There is again confusing law for culture. Nobody is calling for an all-embracing code, law, set of rules or policing of skepticism. That seems to be a subtle straw man that has crept in and simply won’t leave.

      This is a discussion on ethical conduct of skeptical outreach, which one would hope might prompt people to pause and consider their own position in regards to that of other communicators. Nobody can enforce a change in culture, but there are ways to motivate people to challenge it.

      • For your interest, all levels of art do have robust conversations about professional ethics, and often attempts at standards — as well as relevant law. Consider questions like “When may I take your picture, and what may I do with it?” or “What percentages are fair for gallery owners or agents?” or “Is it ethical to hold a t-shirt contest, thereby getting many design comps for free?”

  42. Bo Gardiner says:

    I happen to think skeptics are a pretty ethical bunch. And as I’ve said, I largely haven’t shared the concerns about tone recently discussed. But if it’s true there’s not a statement of our ethics floating around, there should be. We’ve GOT them. Why not let people know what they are? It certainly can’t hurt us to have a reminder. The nature of what we say and do touches on issues of ethics routinely. Such a statement could only benefit and strengthen us. We’re a loose network with no centralized authority and no head. No rulers, no police, no hall monitors. So the hope is simply that these might make a useful framework for discussion.

    Since I’ve been consistent in saying I’m prompted less by ethical or tone concerns than a unity concern, none need chafe that I’m pointing fingers. Besides, this is a useful exercise for me personally with two local skeptical groups I co-founded. So roughed out here is a suggested draft statement that I intend to promulgate in my own groups. Others are welcome to use it as well. But first I’ve no doubt it would first benefit from some feedback, so feel free to weigh in.

    I’d like to reiterate that I consider these nothing more than the embodiment of principles most skeptics I’ve known already fully embrace.

    Statement of Ethical Principles for Skeptics in Public Outreach — A First Draft

    1) Continually develop and employ critical thinking to the best of your ability.

    2) Assess whether your actions advance the long-term goals of skepticism. These are:

    - – - -Promote critical thinking and the integration of the scientific method into our daily lives.
    - – - -Increase understanding of the benefits of science to society.
    - – - -Increase understanding of the negative impacts to society of poor science, pseudoscience, and science devaluation.
    - – - -Promote truth-seeking based on reason and evidence over dogma in solving personal and societal problems.

    3) Be honest.

    - – - -3a) Don’t overstate your case. Caveat your statements appropriately.

    - – - -3b) Don’t misrepresent your opponent.

    4) Never engage in personal attack.

    - – - -4a) While it’s often important to discuss a person’s qualifications or track record, never make irrelevant remarks about race, gender, sexual orientation, physical appearance, or family.

    5) Minimize the “use of force.”

    - – - -5a) Choose the most positive and least aggressive strategy and tone that will be effective.

    - – - -5b) Prioritize relationship-building before relationship-damaging wherever possible.

    - – - -5c) Be respectful in all face-to-face or audio encounters, with young people, and with those who are respectful to you.

    6) Use satire carefully.

    - – - -6a) Recognize that it leaves scars, so be sure you’re using it to make an effective point, and not solely for entertainment.

    7) Avoid contempt in all but the rarest and most egregious of situations. Contempt is the nuclear stepchild of satire — no relationship can be salvaged once employed.

    8) Use humor thoughtfully.

    - – - -8a) Never joke about wishing physical harm on another.

    9) Build cohesion within the skeptical community.

    - – - -9a) Be respectful to one another.

    - – - -9b) Be kind to newcomers at skeptical events.

    10) Don’t be prideful.

    - – - -10a) Be willing to admit mistakes or yield a point to an opponent.

    - – - -10b) Apologize sincerely if you’ve made a mistake.

    - – - -10c) Don’t deceive yourself and/or excessively self-justify. Read up on cognitive dissonance.

    11) Practice emotional intelligence, which is integral to overall intelligence.

    - – - -11a) Be compassionate, a good listener, and empathetic.

    - – - -11b) Be aware of, and in control of, your own emotions.

    12) Encourage other skeptics to follow these principles.

    Posted at “Ethical Principles for Skeptics” (www.greenwoodblog.net/ethical-principles-for-skeptics/)

    • Max says:

      “5a) Choose the most positive and least aggressive strategy and tone that will be effective.”

      What if effectiveness is proportional to aggression in a given situation?

      “8a) Never joke about wishing physical harm on another.”

      I’d like to see the guy who sells bomb-detecting dowsing rods demonstrate them himself in a mine field. Does that count?

      • Bo Gardiner says:

        “5a) Choose the most positive and least aggressive strategy and tone that will be effective.”

        What if effectiveness is proportional to aggression in a given situation?

        Then be aggressive!

        “8a) Never joke about wishing physical harm on another.”

        I’d like to see the guy who sells bomb-detecting dowsing rods demonstrate them himself in a mine field. Does that count?

        You make me want to soften the language of 8a, because I’m with you on that one. How do you think it should be phrased?

      • NightHiker says:

        “I’d like to see the guy who sells bomb-detecting dowsing rods demonstrate them himself in a mine field. Does that count?”

        I guess that (and similar ones) gets a pass because the joke is not actually about wishing physical harm, but that they would never try it to begin with.

  43. NightHiker says:

    Bo,

    I believe that is a very inclusive statement and can’t think of anything to add at this point.

    However, I’d like to point out that you don’t need to go beyond this very own thread to see many of these guidelines being breached (I don’t excuse myself from blame), and this is a discussion among people who supposedly have a much more homogeneous world view than what we see out there. I would think this is not a good indicator about the current application of such ethics by self-described skeptics in general and maybe even more so away from the forefront of the movement.

    • Bo Gardiner says:

      Well, perhaps so. And I too wouldn’t claim to be 100% by any means. These are goals we aspire to, however asymptotically, but they do provide direction. And beyond this thread, other people’s experience may of course differ from mine. But you know, in the interest of moving forward and not getting paralyzed by finger-pointing, maybe the most useful thing at this point is just to see if we like this and perhaps circulate them. What we don’t want is anyone feeling these are being used to judge one another at this point, which would bring the process to a halt.

      • NightHiker says:

        Fair enough, I believe. It’s just too bad it was entered towards the end of this discussion. Maybe it is deserving of a post of its own?

      • Bo Gardiner says:

        I admit I’d like to see this get circulated, but am dependent on others to pick it up. It has its own post on my blog, but the readership is low; there’s a good take on it there from Greg Laden. I’m a bit surprised and disappointed that writers here made such a point of asking for something like this, and now that it’s arrived, it’s being allowed to wither on the vine.

        It feels like a case of not taking yes for an answer, to be honest.

      • NightHiker says:

        The disappointment is mutual. I’ll bookmark the entry on your blog for future reference, though, and forward people to it whenever appropriate.

  44. Bo Gardiner says:

    Daniel, I gather you had a desired outcome to your post in mind that significantly differed from my proposal?

    • I have sometimes wondered in the past if a code of ethical principles could be useful, so I’m sympathetic to your proposal (which certainly contains a great deal of valuable advice). On the other hand, the skeptical blogosphere seems to erupt into controversy over the mere suggestion that unspecified voluntary ethics might be worth considering.

      I’m still reflecting. For now, I am thankful to see conversation taking place.

  45. Vie says:

    Fortunately (unfortunately?) I’ve been working on research for my thesis, so I have missed most of this epic skeptical crisis of morality 2010. I’m sure you guys missed me… and as one of the perennially not-nice skeptics I feel compelled to address ethics and their role in skepticism and science.
    I support ethics in science and research, and one of those ethical obligations is to be honest. Loxton’s version of ethical nicety, in practice, entails pretending that ideas that are silly or completely irrational are somehow otherwise.
    It involves a dishonest indulgence of ideas and notions that lack factual merit.
    I feel no pangs of conscience when I tell creationists that all reasonable evaluation of physical evidence suggests human beings are the product of evolution, and that any bizarre conspiracy theories they may hold sacred are silly (at best) and completely ludicrous (in all honesty).
    They don’t have to like that fact. They don’t have to like me. What they like is not relevant.
    Objective fact stands on it’s own, and the vast majority of individuals who oppose skepticism know better. They cling to beliefs that provide them with comfort, no matter how irrational, and any uncomfortable idea will quickly send them scurrying off to anoint their tax forms in holy water or pray to Oprah to forgive them for their sins so they can lose weight on a shark cartilage diet- or whatever the hell it is freaks do.
    One would be tempted to say “Wow Vie, you sure do have no respect for people who hold superstitious beliefs…”
    Yeah, well, no shit Sherlock. That’s the point. It is cowardly to hide from a fact that scares you and there is no excuse for it.
    As to the efficacy of smart-ass commentary… well shows like the Daily Show and the Colbert Report influence a large amount of the population by poking fun at beliefs they disagree with.
    There’s something to be said for being an asshole…

    • Max says:

      “There’s something to be said for being an asshole…”

      Yes, something like “Get bent, asshole.”

  46. ohduh says:

    Tom Foss had it right in his first post and he got bullied by all the snerds on this site with nothing else to do but pretend to be masters of rhetoric and truth. Look, parsing each other’s pallid postings is just pathetic. And an intellectual circle-jerk.

    Grow up and address simple arguments simply. Skepticism is not a profession nor is it a social category. End of story, except for those who must have a karass (see Vonnegut’s imaginary religion, Bokononism)to which to belong.