Deflecting Criticism: The Well-Meaning Defence

June 19, 2009 at 10:01 pm (Miscellaneous, Patrick Holford) (, , )

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Drugs Group website: “If they recommend some supplements for drug users, and I understand the advice is some years out of date, then Im sure that they have done this with the best of intentions, sincerely believing that some drug side effects might be lessened for drug users”; “I know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.

16 Comments

  1. apgaylard said,

    Thanks for a very thought provoking piece.

  2. dvnutrix said,

    Yes – I, too, felt bad in disagreeing with the person whom you like/respect but I strongly feel (as you do) that circumstances dictate that we have to be even-handed about this, after all, the Green Party is presenting a manifesto that is the public face of why they should be allowed to govern the lives of millions of people. Big ambitions, huge influence – this demands fair scrutiny.

    If the ‘party’ in question had been 3 family members, standing as sort of Cmdr Bill “Keep Death Off The Roads” Boakes figures then (for me) that would be very different. Clearly single issue people and to some extent in the fine tradition of eccentrics (who may or may not also be rebarbative) have some sort of pass (depending on circumstances) but not a party with many candidates who are contenders for positions in national/international parliaments.

    There does seem to be a lack of proportionality in the comments – over at HolfordWatch (as you know) we are frequently accused of vitriol. Oddly enough, I was very annoyed to see that some passing commenter upbraided AP Gaylard , one of the most sober, thoughtful, meticulous bloggers there is, of “fear mongering and hate tactics”. Since when has relying upon evidence such as Cochrane been hate tactics – this is beyond the rhetoric of even Holmes and micro-fascism. Still – just a passing commenter and therefore not as lamentable as Holmes et al (IMHO).

  3. Badsciencemonk said,

    If a drunken friend offers to give me a lift in his car the fact that this would normally be seen as a nice gesture if sober would not provide immunity for prosecution from an illegal and dangerous act

  4. apgaylard said,

    Thinking a little more about this piece during the day it occurs to me that “The Well Meaning Defence” has an evilt twin, “The You Are So Mean” defence. There is something of this in a NS letter this week (under Lewith’s) which criticises Singh for the use of the word “Bogus” when he could have used “unverified”, a more “courteous” term according to the writer.

    Deploying this tactic allows the user to avoid engaging with evidence just because it’s put to them in what they consider to be an unfriendly manner.

    In extremis a user can constitute even the citation of counter-evidence as an extreme discourtesy as shown by the examples dvnutrix kindly provides.

  5. jdc325 said,

    Thank you for the comments everyone. Will try to respond properly tomorrow.

    AP Gaylard – yes, I was thinking the same thing re the You’re So Mean Defence (or the “Vitriol Defence” as I was going to name it – in honour, so to speak, of various Holford Watch commenters).

  6. jdc325 said,

    Re “The Vitriol Defence”: I gave a couple of examples of this in my Last of The Summer Whine post (last two paras). Once again, I found that comments on the Holford Watch blog were useful. As was a newsletter sent out by Patrick Holford himself.

    I wrote that this “seems to be a recurring theme. Those who are criticised for making unsubstantiated claims or for having failed to think things through properly lash out at their critics and accuse them of unkindness, aggression, or even “vitriol” rather than taking a look at what they themselves could have done differently”.

    Perhaps related is my speculation that those who believe in Alternative Medicine often seem to become rather angry when defending AltMed. At the time, you commented on “Milgrom’s recent call to arms, “Time to get ANGRY; to get UNIFIED; to get BUSY DEFENDING homeopathy/CAM” coupled with his inabaility to get to grips with things like evidence, honest quotations, reading what he cites…”. After I wrote about “angry woos”, I re-read the comments from Dr Damien Downing on your blog. I note that he gets “p****d off at scientists telling doctors what they should do”. I recall that you mentioned his querying your qualifications and his later remarks regarding Feynman where Downing then stated that “apgaylard has as much right as I do to discuss this stuff”.

    Anger, accuations of unkindness or vitriol, and the use of the well-meaning defence all seem to crop up fairly regularly in the comments sections of those writing bad science blogs. I suspect that these are all connected to some degree.

    I haven’t yet referred to the “mimosaphant* tendencies” of these commenters, but I note that this is perhaps something that is also relevant to your discussions with Dr Downing. As you wrote at the time: “I’m sorry if my choice of words has offended you. Given that you implied that Ernst is lying and Shang is guilty of misconduct, I didn’t think you’d be that sensitive.”

    *I think Shinga of the Breathspa for Kids blog has the honour of being credited with the earliest online use of this neologism.

    So far we have: angry alt med advocates, the vitriol defence, the well-meaning defence, and mimosaphant tendencies.

  7. jdc325 said,

    @dvnutrix: “single issue people and to some extent in the fine tradition of eccentrics (who may or may not also be rebarbative) have some sort of pass (depending on circumstances)”
    Yes, I think that’s probably fair. I was thinking about this last night and it occurred that much of the criticism I have seen that has been countered with an attempt at the well-meaning defence has been in the field of medicine. The context probably does play a part in how I view the use of this defence.

  8. jdc325 said,

    @dvnutrix / apgaylard:
    I agree with your comments regarding Dr B and don’t think there is anything I would add.

  9. jdc325 said,

    @Monk – thanks for the interesting analogy.

  10. Sarah said,

    Thoughtful, useful post. It’s incredibly hard to cut ideas away from the people who have them: I often find myself giving leeway to people I’m friends with or people I admire that I wouldn’t allow, because I’m generally sympathetic to them. I’d probably be a lousier person if I didn’t, but it’s still not much good for the quality of thinking.

  11. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for commenting Sarah. I’m not sure that I agree that you’d be “a lousier person” if you didn’t give leeway to people you’re friends with or admire, but I’ll have a bit of a think about that point. I know that, sometimes, you have to ‘let people be wrong’* but if you are giving leeway more often to those you are generally sympathetic to then I think it’s debatable whether that is the right approach.

    *Otherwise, there is a danger that you may turn into this person: http://xkcd.com/386/

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