thanks for your concern, but we’ll be fine…
Despite the frequent blanket use of the term concern troll, there are many degrees of concern trolling. Some people make an entire career out of being clueless, naive crusaders, while others simply channel some of their disappointments and choose to dwell on the negative side of what they otherwise support. Blogger and science writer Frank Swain definitely fits into the latter category with his speech about the numerous flaws of today’s skeptical communities. Hold on folks, don’t grab your pitchforks. Buried among the typical mentions of how skeptics and science bloggers are so insensitive, cold, data-driven, abusive, and hostile, are several valid points. However, in his disappointment and calls for a softer, more gentle, more anecdote-friendly brand of skepticism, he makes a number of crucial mistakes and assumptions which need to be questioned.
First, the good. Swain points out that skeptical bloggers have a reputation for being harsh, a reputation that’s chanted by pretty much everybody who doesn’t like our style or disagrees with us but can’t counter many of the facts we present. Most woo-meisters employ it as their primary defense, turning their replies to just about any factual rebuttal of their claims into little more than whining about their hurt feelings. This is why we usually counter complaints about tone and our supposed lack of civility with a dismissive shrug. Being snarky or not mincing words have their purpose, and sometimes it’s the only way to get through the saccharine veneers of quacks and cranks. That said, there is a line past which being snarky and brutally honest turns into being abusive and there are skeptics who don’t know when to put on the brakes, or slip and let a pejorative fly. And yes, I’m certainly not without sin in that area and I do notice it on other blogs. In fact, the stereotype of skeptics as either cynical naysayers, or raging, spiky balls of fury got attention from the former president of JREF, Phil Plait, who delivered the now infamous “don’t be a dick” speech not too long ago.
Another good point is that simply writing a post about a topic isn’t the same as being an active skeptic. It does help, and it can become a good resource if you get enough exposure via syndication, search engines, or any major social bookmarking site. However, getting on the radio and participating in a debate, or sending some of your posts to journalists in response to factually incorrect or downright irresponsible claims they publish is even better. Getting involved in your local school board meetings to counter those who make it their mission to undermine public education is better still. In other words, just like Swain says, we can’t simply assume that our work is done because skeptics are armed with blogs and can organize for a public stunt or two that get a little media coverage. Our work is just beginning. But then, when Swain starts talking about skeptical blogs as homogenous echo chambers of consent and skeptical get togethers as territorial or unwelcoming to any new skeptical activists, especially women, he quickly starts going off the rails.
To assume that skeptics rarely have disagreements on their blogs because these blogs are read by people who are predisposed to agree with them is simply incorrect. Just look around this one for example. After you count all the critics from denialist, alt med, religious fundamentalist, accommodationist, and even skeptical camps, this place hardly seems like a big, cozy echo chamber where I can expect to write whatever I want in peace and with barely a challenger who I could cast to my ravenous skeptical hordes. Just consider this post for example. Here’s a skeptic reading a skeptical science blog and he has a different opinion from the blog’s author. So much for preaching to the choir. In fact, some of the best blogs on the web are ones where you do have differences in opinion in the comments sections. Bland, uniform droning rarely gathers all that much in the way of readers. Now, how skeptics treat those who disagree with them, and how they act in person at the events they attend depends on their personalities. Outside blanket generalizations and caricatures, you’ll find that skeptical gatherings and debates run the gamut from friendly to outright verbal wars. The entire skeptical movement can’t police every meeting, party, or conference to be as open and inviting as possible.
Likewise, our concerned skeptic implores us to be less data driven and understand how well good, relatable stories can attract attention. But many skeptical bloggers already know that. Witness the countless tales of a former woo faithful who chose to embrace science and skepticism all over the web. What about Orac’s story of the Orange Man whose trust in alt med quackery backfired? What about Phil’s accounts of how anti-vaxers are spreading diseases city by city with their hysterical Luddism? And what about the steady streams of very revealing and disturbing tales of how unhinged partisan politics and religious fundamentalism can harm our society coming from Ed Brayton and PZ Myers? Unlike Swain seems to assume, his fellow skeptics know full well how to tell a good story, and he’s far from the first person to have thought about this issue. Maybe, if he’d spend a little less time generalizing and a little more time focused on where the real problems lay, his speech would’ve given his fellow skeptics useful tips, tricks and hints rather than simply bury them among the clichéd ridicule they hear day in and day out, with seemingly no consideration for its accuracy.