Sunday, August 23, 2009

What the Internet Can Do...

I was bemused to see that Betsy McCaughey had been fired after her interview with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. The Washington Independant reported:
Betsy McCaughey — an outspoken proponent of the myth that Democrats’ health care reform proposals will lead to the creation of “death panels,” as well as a former lieutenant governor of New York and adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute — has stepped down from her position as a director of Cantel Medical Corp., which bills itself as a “leading provider of infection prevention and control products in the healthcare market.”
Frankly, I don't like to use this blog for ANY political purposes because in general my take is that a lot of politics is beyond the scope of skepticism. Some questions don't lend themselves to a purely rational analysis, for example qualitative questions.

Regardless, this outcome reminded me of an ongoing debate in skepticism dealing with the role of civility and the value of ridicule in confrontations with differing points of view. I posted a tiny message on twitter and it cross-posted to facebook. And this exchange with Reed Esau and Daniel Loxton took place. I enjoyed the discourse so much that I didn't want to lose it - and there may be others out there that would like to comment on it. So I'm preserving it here on my blog.


DoctorAtlantis

DoctorAtlantis There are many skeptics who question whether ridicule is appropriate. Being nice is - well, nice. But check this: : http://bit.ly/3qvxcg


Daniel Loxton
Daniel Loxton
Only sincere believers deserve respect. Cynical scam artists deserve to be hammered.
Reed Esau
Reed Esau
How about when you don't know whether the person is a sincere believer or not? Do you grant him or her the benefit of the doubt?

What about sincere believers like Jenny McCarthy who are causing demonstrable harm? Is she immune from ridicule? (pun mostly not intended)

Daniel Loxton
Daniel Loxton
Yes, give the benefit of the doubt. Kevin Trudeau is fair game. Everyone else gets at least a high degree of civility.

Yes, public safety matters much more than civility. The ethical failing of rudeness is obviously much smaller than the ethical failing of spreading infectious disease. But here I make exactly the same "be nice" argument for strategic reasons: will the millions of people sympathetic to Jenny listen to us more or less if we sound like @#$holes? The folks who are thinking of not vaccinating are the people we have to communicate with…
DoctorAtlantis
DoctorAtlantis
It's a tough call, and I don't think there can be a single rule that covers every situation. When someone like Jenny McCarthy proposes that letting other people's kids die because she's afraid of science and medicine - that's probably too serious an issue to give her too much civility. For that matter, it's a complete failing of the media who give her such coverage in the first place when she's in a nut-ball minority who are willing to let roll back medicine to the 1700's because they've been privileged enough to be raised in a society where vaccines work well enough that people have forgotten how fucking awful it is when children die by the hundreds or thousands to disfiguring diseases.

So when I find myself wanting to say "Fuck that retard Jenny McCarthy! Her ideas are stupid and deadly!" It's difficult to balance that with understanding that fans of her boobs and nose-picking might not be aware that she also an advocate for dangerous idiocy that could hurt their children.
DoctorAtlantis
DoctorAtlantis
And calling Jenny McCarthy retarded is also a big insult to retarded people, the vast majority of which are not trying to set the rest of civilization back a couple of hundred years.

So with that example we have a volatile issue in that fans of Oprah, who have seen McCarthy, might not be exercising the best critical thinking skills. After all, the appeal to authority of "I heard it on Oprah" is not questioned much in the average household. When I think of how many people assume Oprah's done all the fact-checking that's needed, it breaks my heart into A MILLION LITTLE PIECES.
Daniel Loxton
Daniel Loxton
Yes, it upsets me, too. But again it's a communication issue. The same qualities that make people listen to Oprah — warmth and kindness among them — are the things *we* need if people are to listen to us.

But civil doesn't mean silent. You can be serious, civil, and loud. If an antivaccination proponent speaks up, it's OK (and necessary) to say, "These statements are not true — and they're reckless. Convincing parents of this false argument will have the result that people will die."
DoctorAtlantis
DoctorAtlantis
I think it is good that you remind folks of the importance of civility. I find that USUALLY I'm pretty civil. Internet forums sometimes bring out the worst in me, but even there I tend to flip over to advanced sarcasm and absurdism rather than, for example, personal attacks. After all, I don't know these people.

It's a bit like that Brian Dunning did on the "Sarah Palin is not Stupid" episode of Skeptoid. That whole idea is - really - an ad hominem attack. I do think some people are stupid, but calling them stupid is USUALLY not very helpful.

Are you calling for raised civility as a general reminder, or in response to particular cases of "skepticism" being associated with crass, vulgar, mean or other types of behavior?
Daniel Loxton
Daniel Loxton
Just in general. I think it's always an important reminder, and all the more so as skepticism becomes more of an amateur movement and further removed from its academic roots.

(I hassle people about this on the other side, too. I've been outspoken about words like "woos," but also about terms like "scoftics.")
Reed Esau
Reed Esau
This is a fascinating topic. A few more questions:

Has this topic been addressed in our literature - magazines, books, etc.?

When a fellow skeptic is uncivil towards a believer, what's the best course of action?

I wonder if it'd be helpful to establish rules of civility for SkeptiCamp, where we suggest it be part of an introductory session for every event?
Daniel Loxton
Daniel Loxton
It's funny: I was just thinking this could be a good little essay…
DoctorAtlantis
DoctorAtlantis
I've definitely seen it break down before in a public forum - specifically at a Skeptics-in-the-Pub event. (Without getting into the dynamics of in-group/out-group social interaction) If the purpose of those events is to grow the ranks of skepticism that's not the same as just spreading skeptical thought, IMHO. I've got to suspect it has been covered in the lit somewhere - but I just saw a pop-up saying Daniel had commented here, so I'm going to save this and see what he wrote. :)
Daniel Loxton
Daniel Loxton
It's really the same conversation as the TAM7 prudery thing: the goal of entertaining existing skeptics requires a different approach than the goal of doing public outreach and harm reduction. I care about the latter far more, but the former gives us the support of a community of skeptics… There's an inescapable tension.
DoctorAtlantis
DoctorAtlantis
Indeed, but setting an example for how to engage with civility is not just admirable, it may be key to the survival of skepticism as a community in the long run. After all, the dynamics of group growth invariably includes fracturing into smaller sub-sets and that ability to maintain civil discourse - in the majority of interaction - will be vital to keeping over-arching self-identity. (In my opinion.)
DoctorAtlantis
DoctorAtlantis
Where can we get good examples of skepticism engaging in civil discourse? And bad examples? Might make for an interesting video.
Reed Esau
Reed Esau
Agreed on the need for examples to help one internalize the guidelines better.

This info could take a number of forms. The essay that Daniel mentions. Blake's video, my SkeptiCamp slides, etc.

I think we have a problem with skeptic project proliferation. :^)
Reed Esau
Reed Esau
I'm also curious to know how civility guidelines relate to a project like this:

http://evolvingthoughts.net/2009/06/06/a-code-of-conduct-for-effective-rational-discussion/

Are they the same thing, or do they merely share some overlap? If the latter, where do we draw the line?
DoctorAtlantis
DoctorAtlantis
Reed, you're right. On the other hand, it's nice to have my brain working at well over its normal 10%. ;)
DoctorAtlantis
DoctorAtlantis
Per your link, I'd say there is "some" overlap but that article is about rational discussion. Daniel's point - if I may be permitted to comment on how I understand it - has to do with civility in discourse that might not be rational at all. For example, when discussing with a believer - a SERIOUS believer - in a UFO cover up, it may not be easy to be civil and polite when you're being shouted-down as a government shill. Yet I think there is a value to keeping one's composure if it can be done.

I also think one can calmly engage such a person and still use ridicule and sometimes win the argument and the crowd just by being the one that does not melt-down under fire.
Reed Esau
Reed Esau
One can apparently go too far in pursuit of civility, such as by creating an oppressive http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speech_code where being "respectful" prohibits discussion of topics that some might find uncomfortable - e.g., the Holocaust or gender differences.
DoctorAtlantis
DoctorAtlantis
Oh - and for a good example of how to behave, Shermer's interview on the Skeptiko podcast (which appeared to be a very bizarre interview) is a great example of how to keep one's cool in what looks to have been a misrepresentation. Likewise with his public commentary on Expelled.

Not to be hypercritical of Shermer but if you take these two good-examples, and then compare to how he reacted to being punked by "Shirley Ghostman" I think you get a great compare/contrast. And I suspect that Shermer himself might agree with that - if he's not still mad about the Ghostman punking.
DoctorAtlantis
DoctorAtlantis
Oh, I agree Reed but you can go too far with anything. I think Daniel was just talking about giving a strong endorsement to the importance of civility when engaging opponents. After all, no matter how hard we try to use rationality - in the end we're just fancy monkeys and that urge to fling poo is still very close to the surface.
DoctorAtlantis
DoctorAtlantis
Of course I'm SUPPOSED TO BE PROGRAMMING! Feel free to keep chatting about this. I'll try to comment as I have time. Got a deadline to hit.
Reed Esau
Reed Esau
Michael Stackpole's talk at TAM 5.5 and last year's D*C may be relevant as well to this topic. I don't know if there's a video available. He describes techniques on keeping a cool head and maintaining civility while crushing one's opponent.
Reed Esau
Reed Esau
Agreed that Daniel isn't going so far as to propose a speech code. I raise it largely as a point of contrast. Though I doubt that anyone will accuse us of promoting a speech code, it's helpful to describe how our effort is different.
Daniel Loxton
Daniel Loxton
Wow, what a great thread! I agree with everything you guys just said, including the fact of Shermer sometimes being a terrific example. His best work, like the holocaust stuff or some of his conversations with creationists, involves sitting down with that totally unflappable attitude and really talking with crazy people — and really getting the inside scoop on what they think.
DoctorAtlantis
DoctorAtlantis
This is exactly the kind of conversation I've always wanted to have in a coffee-shop. Only (a) that never happens around here in coffee shops and (b) the results wouldn't be documented like this for future reference.

Thanks guys. Now we all have some additional projects to work on. JUST WHAT WE NEEDED.




So that's the thread. Got anything to add?
Be civil. ;)

8 comments:

Podblack said...

Yes - the Think Tank sessions that the Skeptic Zone has. We've traveled across the country and internationally, discussing with people at skeptical conferences and our lectures. Would they be a useful resource in that regard?

Podblack said...

Oh, there's also episodes that Skeptic Zone podcast have done with parapsychologists like Dr Caroline Watt and the interview that Richard Saunders did with Alex Tsakiris of Sceptiko podcast.

HannahJ said...

Did I miss something? You call Jenny McCarthy a retard and then remind people about the need for civility. Geez....sounds like you're completely out of touch and like you never left 7th grade.

Doctor Atlantis said...

@HannahJ I can see where that would be challenging. The argument is about the need for civility and that bit was specifically about how that I found it difficult to be civil when ignorance and fear were being used to promote dangerous ideas that could literally kill people.

For example, I disagree with the people who say that we never landed on the moon. But I'd have an easier time arguing with them civily because even if they became a huge political contingent and made congress pass a resolution that said America never did that - we still wouldn't lose thousands to millions of lives because of it.

But in the case of the anti-vaxers it's a baby-with-the-bathwater situation. They make erroneous statments about the safety of vax and ignore the millions and millions of unmaimed and living people who only have the quality of life they have because of vaccines.

That's the civil argument.

But what do you think best describes someone who is trying to ban life-saving technology because they are afraid of it? Someone who wants to slow down the advancement of medicine? Slow it down?

Perhaps I should call her a "Retarder." Because she's trying to retard progress?

I dunno. I think it would be nice if people with polio or who had been disfigured through small-pox would protest her everywhere she talks.

Reed said...

The reason conversations like this never happen in a coffee-shop is because there's often a nice pub around the corner.

Reed said...

@Podblack: now that you mention it, Richard Saunders' talk "Fakes, Frauds & Fools" should be a great resource on this topic as well.

Jim Lippard said...

Re: What's already in the literature includes Ray Hyman's "Proper Criticism," which is a set of guidelines of civility that includes "Use the principle of charity." That guideline refers (at least implicitly) to a philosophical principle relevant to language understanding:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principle_of_charity

It's a principle that can be pushed to its limits on some topics that skeptics discuss.

Martin Gardner has also occasionally had things to say about the role of ridicule, such as quoting H.L. Mencken's "one horse-laugh is worth a thousand syllogisms" and commenting "One horse-laugh in its appropriate setting may be worth a dozen scholarly papers, though never at the price of the latter" (cited on p. 107 of David J. Hess's _Science in the New Age: The Paranormal, Its Defenders and Debunkers, and American Culture_--I think that may be from _Science Good, Bad, and Bogus_).

I Doubt It said...

It's very hard to carry on a civil discussion with those that don't play by the same rules. Just like it's close to impossible to truly have an "argument" with those who refuse to be logical.

Re: the "retard" comment. I sympathize. It takes effort for some of us to squelch the gut reactions of fury that rise up when people deliberately and maliciously say these things (which I think J.Mc. does). I am ashamed to say that I feel pretty real hatred for Hannity, O'Reilly, Dembski and Beck and the like because they DELIBERATELY are inciting emotion. That's despicable.

How can you take the high road with people who will line it with ambushes and booby traps? I sometimes wish people would take up the stick, when appropriate.

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