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.
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.”
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.