why being nice doesn’t always work

December 22, 2009 — 5 Comments

There’s a complaint skeptical science bloggers get on a regular basis. We’re too aggressive and snarky when we come across pseudoscience or cranks. Instead of kindly and gently pointing out our objections, we tend to go for the jugular and many of us don’t mince words. Why are we so evil? Because we’re not here to be polite and watch out for the self-esteem of conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxers, creationists, homeopaths and the other woo peddlers who attack science and critical thinking in the media and on the web. Cranks have an immunity to congenial objections, brushing them off as “close-minded materialism” or simply ignoring them. That’s why we call cranks out on their nonsense or dangerous quackery with no regard for their delicate sensibilities.

Once upon a time, when people said something stupid or demonstrably wrong, they were shown as mistaken and removed from the media spotlight. But today, thanks to the power of the web and the popularity of famous pundits who’s primary concerns are ratings and falling into a partisan line, cranks are everywhere and they’re expecting to get a pat on the head for being the groundbreaking iconoclasts they fancy themselves to be. And believe it or not, thanks to shoddy media coverage and highly moderated, insular web communities, they get the praise they crave. Then, after reaching a broader audience and getting on our radars, they’re confronted with people who say that they’re wrong, that they’re not the visionaries they imagine themselves, and that their ideas are either misguided or meaningless when put in the proper scientific context. You can probably guess what happens next…

Angry e-mail hits our inboxes and streams of angry comments start showing up on our posts, asking us how dare we doubt them and accusing us of being close-minded cynics filled with bitterness and rage. Who do we think we are doubting their claims? How could we try to squeeze their profound insights into the fundamental workings of the universe into the limited, materialistic box of science? Can’t we grasp how complex everything around us really is and give them due credit for using their imagination in place of empirical studies and well conducted experiments? Well, forget it. We’re not here to pat cranks on the head and give them their politically correct compliment sandwich used by corporate managers during performance reviews. We’re here to write about good science, new discoveries and point out cases of bad journalism or anti-scientific platitudes used for profit and self-aggrandizement. When someone spews nonsense, we explain exactly why it’s wrong and if they continue to do it, we’ll continue to expose their mistakes in no uncertain terms.

[ illustration by Wear Controversy ]

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  • Jypson

    Yeah, but some of us have family members who are peddlers of woo, and we can’t exactly be mean to them and burst their bubble of non-sense…so we have to just quietly ignore their insanity since pointing it out doesn’t go over so smoothly.

  • Greg Fish

    Trust me, I find myself in the same boat on occasion.

    Over the last few months I’ve gotten into a number of debates on homeopathy with a few immediate family members. After explaining succussion and how homeopathic medicine is made, they agreed that the principles behind it were nonsense.

    I’m not saying skeptics should be aggressive for the sake of being aggressive, just that we shouldn’t mince words when going after repeat offenders. And that’s exactly what many skeptics find themselves doing.

  • Jypson

    Not trying to one up you, but my friendly family science abusers are of the creationist variety. I’ve got a better chance of changing my dog Spartacus’ preference for bacon over vegetables.

  • RaggMopp

    Compliments, gfish. I’ve found that sound and fury have their place. Maybe not so much with nuclear family – they sort of look at the ground and wait ’til I stop spewing smoke and ash; but with those in the medium range, aunts, uncles, cousins, it seems to have the desired effect.

    @Jypson: I have to agree, creationists are typically not susceptible to rational dialog. But much of that is due to training. They learn a whole new way of talking and thinking at church, and can draw on it at will. Even when you smoke them in person, they quickly recoup when out of sight.

    One of their standard gambits that you can turn on them to leave them gasping like fish out of water: They come back: “So you believe in evolution!?” Delivered with left eyebrow rampant, after the fashion of an English squire accosted by Hottentots. You respond, ‘No.” They come back with some predictable, incredulous retort about your pervious statement. You continue, “The phrase ‘believe-in’ is only appropriate to a discussion of faith. Science is not about belief. The phrase, ‘I believe you’ merely implies that I’m not willing to call you a liar or a fool, yet. ‘Believe-in’, clearly implies an act of faith; I am not only willing to accept your line, I have swallowed it whole. Veifiable, repeatable factual results define science, and scientific theorys that can’t withstand facts are instantly discarded. To paraphrase Professor Victor J. Stenger: When the facts contradict a scientific proposition, the proposition is discarded; when the facts contradict a religious proposition, the facts are discarded.”

    That’s not gonna change their concrete brains, but it has sure served to shut them up on more than one occassion.

  • Bill

    “‘Believe-in’, clearly implies an act of faith;”

    Correct. Belief is not knowing something but accepting it’s reality based on available information. I can believe a lot of things about my existence but I also have to accept the premise that I indeed exist, based on available information.

    The problem I see here is that “you” think you don’t believe anything but rather only either know or don’t know anything.

    “Veifiable, repeatable factual results define science, and scientific theorys that can’t withstand facts are instantly discarded. To paraphrase Professor Victor J. Stenger: When the facts contradict a scientific proposition, the proposition is discarded; when the facts contradict a religious proposition, the facts are discarded.”

    Do you not believe that a scientific theory is fact because of the available information at the time gives you no other reason to not accept it as such? When that same theory is determined to be wrong by new information, do you not believe that the new theory is then factual? Wasn’t the previous theory based off of verifiable, repeatable results?

    As far as when facts contradict a religious proposition, what verifiable and repeatable fact has come to light that has shown the proposition of a God, as an explanation for existence, to be false and therfore can be discarded?