I’ve noticed that, on occasion, criticism of the views, policies, or recommendations of individuals or organisations elicits the response that the individual or group being criticised is “well-meaning”, “sensitive” or “nice”, or even “sincere” and the suggestion that perhaps they should not be the subject of criticism.
It is my opinion that, however well-meaning or pleasant a person or organisation may be, if views are made public then it is reasonable that those views be subject to critical appraisal. It is also my opinion that sincerity is not a substitute for accuracy.
Sometimes, commenters will suggest an alternative – a person or organisation that they consider to be a more appropriate target for criticism. Here are some examples from one website of the ‘well-meaning defence’. Some, though not all, will include suggested ‘alternative targets’.
On criticism of Patrick Holford: “i wondered if you criticize the pharmacuetical industry as much – maybe you can point me to this” [note the suggested ‘alternative target’]; “this is such a common accusation made against pharmaceutical companies i find it curious that you manage to transfer it onto PH” [again, note the suggested ‘alternative target’]; “I find PH to be incredibly sensitive“. Note: one of the authors of this website has to point out that “it is fair comment for us to say that Holford’s work on nutrition is poor quality science” (they also point out, incidentally, that the “incredibly sensitive” Patrick Holford is the same one who once used the word “crazy” to describe someone with schizophrenia and whose organisation Food For The Brain once wrote about certain foods making children “stupid”).
On criticism of information on the Green Party Drugs Group website: “If they recommend some supplements for drug users, and I understand the advice is some years out of date, then Im sure that they have done this with the best of intentions, sincerely believing that some drug side effects might be lessened for drug users”; “I know a few people in the Green party drugs group and they are dedicated, sincere and principled“; “Im not saying you don’t have a point re the science […] I just think you should cut them a break, and maybe pick more worthwhile targets. Like that Holford bloke perhaps” [again, note the suggested ‘alternative target’].
On criticism of the media’s uncritical promotion of Dore: “If you would get out of your self-limiting intellectual box and visit a Dore Center or a vision therapy department in a serious way, you would find sincere people who know they are helping kids”; “when an apparently intelligent and sincere person tells us that he’s helping these kids, I should at least pay him the respect of listening to what he has to say”.
Perhaps just one or two more examples from people defending Holford would be in order: “I cannot understand your antagonistic attitude towards Patrick Holfords work […] I believe Patrick Holford is an honest, ethical indevidual with exceptional qualities and great compassion“; and “Prof. Holford is a man who seems to me to have many useful and positive qualities as a human being. (e.g energy, confidence, vision, persistance)”; “There are umpteen wrongs, mistruths, injustices, pedlars of inaccurate information in the world – many more prominent than Patrick Holford. Why focus on him rather than anything or anyone else?” [once again, I invite you to note the suggested ‘alternative targets’].
None of the personal qualities italicised in the above quoted sections are being questioned here. What I am arguing is that these personal qualities should normally be judged to be irrelevant when judging the validity of a person’s (or an organisation’s) statements, arguments or policies.
Confession: I may, in the past, have committed the error of mounting the “well-meaning defence”. I may do so again in the future (but you are welcome to pick me up on it if I do). In writing this post, one of the indented sections I wrote was based on comments made by somebody that I happen to like and respect. I found it difficult to include because I felt bad about criticising someone that I both like and respect. Not to include this section, though, would have been akin to committing the error of the “well-meaning defence” – and it would also have been cowardly. It is easy to criticise the views of those we dislike or have little respect for. While criticising the dislikable or unrespectable may be fair, it could be argued that failing to criticise those we do like and respect may render our criticism of the former unfair as well as discriminatory.