On Skeptics

July 4, 2010 at 2:48 pm (Miscellaneous)

Jack of Kent has posted some interesting questions on his blog regarding the image of skepticism. I’m posting this partly in response to some of his questions.

Jack has asked whether, to those whose cherished views are being questioned, skepticism comes across with “Tebbitite stridency” and posed the question “Is skepticism getting a reputation for arrogance and smugness?”

I think the answer to those questions is probably “yes”. I’m not sure whether a reputation for arrogance and smugness is justified, but you have to address the perceptions people have rather than the perceptions you would like them to have.

I tend to assume that while robust criticism may persuade fence-sitters that x is wrong, it will likely elicit a defensive response from those who currently believe that x is right. Particularly if said criticism uses language that might be considered to be rude or unkind. I admit that I do not always practice what I preach, and that is a failing I should attempt to address.

Skeptics who disagree with me and favour a more robust approach than mine might like to think about how they feel when they are referred to as smug or arrogant – and bear that feeling in mind when they are about to call someone stupid or deluded. (With reference to the use of “deluded”: Nicholas Marsh has a post that touches on the question of whether it is ethical to criticise people by implying, or explicitly stating, that they are mentally ill and notes that “attacking someone’s integrity or mental health risks undermining the open discussion that one wishes to defend – you aren’t going to win many converts by calling people frauds, mad, or both.”)

My comments above, like the majority of those on Jack of Kent’s blogpost, are speculative. It’s interesting to note that people (myself included) have tended to respond to Jack’s questions with subjective opinion. I’m not sure if much evidence has been gathered regarding the perception of skeptics, or the relative success of different approaches to arguing with people we disagree with, but I’m a little surprised that skeptics don’t seem to have asked whether there is any evidence to support the positions being taken. (Well, not at the time of writing – someone will surely quote the skeptic’s motto of “evidence or STFU” before too long.)

The only research into persuasion that I have read is contained in Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: Science and Practice.

Cialdini describes the successful use of what he describes as ‘weapons of influence’ – including reciprocal concessions, commitment and consistency, and liking. If these approaches are successful, it seems logical to assume that contrary approaches will be less successful in persuading and may even be counterproductive.

I’m writing a long blogpost on anti-vaccine campaigns at the moment and have written that the response of some parents to the misinformation they have been subjected to is understandable. For example, in the MMR scare.

People were exposed to extremely partial reporting of Wakefield’s research, were unaware of its flaws, and were not told about published research that disagreed with Wakefield’s conclusions (while unpublished research that purportedly agreed with Wakefield was promoted uncritically). Digression: There is also the issue of whether people have the tools to appraise scientific evidence. People are considering how this should be addressed. For example, Ben Goldacre asked the following question on his blog:

given that we struggle to engage children with science, while half of all science coverage is health, and people are clearly very engaged in these issues around risk: should evidence based medicine, basic epidemiology and trial design, be taught in schools?

Calling people who are concerned about vaccination “morons” (even if the concerns are ill-founded) is, I think, likely to be counterproductive. Instead of persuading them, the effect is to put them on the defensive.

Would it be practical for skeptics to use any of the weapons of influence described by Cialdini in debating? I don’t know, but I will now make some tenuous connections and speculate wildly.

Authority seems like the most obvious weapon of influence that could be deployed. The debunking of anti-vaccine canards might seem more convincing if it came from an infectious diseases specialist or immunologist rather than from me.

Liking also seems to be a weapon of influence that could be utilised. Cialdini has a chapter subheading titled “Making Friends to Influence People” and tells the story of Joe Girard, a man who made $200,000 a year selling cars and claimed to use the simple formula of presenting customers with a fair price and someone they’d like to buy from. Cialdini also lists some of the reasons for liking: physical attractiveness; similarity; compliments; contact & cooperation.

Reciprocation is the third and final of Cialdini’s weapons of influence that I shall mention. He discusses the effect of reciprocal concessions and how they might help to persuade. Interestingly, Cialdini speculates that reciprocal concessions may explain Watergate.

G Gordon Liddy apparently first presented a scheme that cost $1m to be spent on bugging, a “chase plane”, break-ins, kidnapping, mugging squads, and a yacht featuring “high-class call girls”. This was rejected – at which point Liddy came back with a slightly less-ambitious plan costing $500,000. Again, Liddy’s proposal was rejected. Finally, he submitted his burglary and bugging plan that cost $250,000. Cialdini writes that “this time the plan, still stupid but less so than the previous ones was accepted”. If Cialdini is right, then this is a good example of just how powerful weapons of persuasion can be.

Trying to persuade people by using weapons of influence might in some cases be difficult, impractical, or even impossible. But if the alternative people reach for is to call parents who don’t vaccinate “stupid” or “deluded”, then perhaps those weapons of influence are worthy of consideration.

One area where there is some evidence of the importance of presentation is that of debunking myths.

Schwarz et al [PDF] discuss attempts to improve decision-making – and the frequent failures of these attempts.

Presumably, erroneous beliefs can be dispelled by confronting them with contradictory evidence. Yet attempts to do so often increase later acceptance of the erroneous beliefs […] Any attempt to explicitly discredit false information necessarily involves a repetition of the false information, which may contribute to its later familiarity and acceptance. […] In most cases it will be safer to refrain from any reiteration of the myths and to focus solely on the facts. The more the facts become familiar and fluent, the more likely it is that they will be accepted as true and serve as the basis of people’s judgments and intentions.

What to do? Well, we could make the facts familiar to people – and make the familiarity bias work in our favour. If you have factual information that would help counter misinformation, then the best tactic may be to state the information, and to repeat it sufficiently often for the true statement(s) to ‘enter into the public consciousness’.

If debunking myths can have such unintended consequences, then what else in the presentation of skeptical views can be counterproductive? I think the language used can probably be unhelpful in some instances and, like the debunking of myths, can entrench opposition to the skeptical views being espoused. There are probably other problematic elements of the presentation of skeptic views that have not even occurred to me.

I don’t think I have the answers to the questions that have been raised regarding the image of skeptics or the debunking of myths, but I do think that the questions are worthy of discussion.

This post was brought to you by Self-Doubters Anonymous, in conjunction with the Navel-Gazing Council of Great Britain. Thank you for reading it.


  1. Cybertiger said,

    If you’re going to blog on scepticism, you might make the effort to spell it right. Twit!

  2. Tweets that mention On Skeptics « Stuff And Nonsense -- Topsy.com said,

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Allen Green. David Allen Green said: RT @jdc325: New Blogpost: On Skeptics http://bit.ly/adrQN3 (partly in response to @jackofkent's questions here: http://bit.ly/az55In ear … […]

  3. Badsciencemonk said,

    Good post JDC. I think sometimes we do misjudge how lurkers in particular will judge the constant use of profanity and invective which seem to take over sceptic forums.

    Cybertiger. Get help

  4. Brunoe said,

    This blog reflects my own thoughts. I have trouble finding a way of engaging with believers, in a way that does not just come across as being a know it all. Even while explaining i am quite open to being wrong if new evidence is presented. I spent a week living in englands most haunted castle as we recorded vocals for an album. Despite a beliver majority and some impressive audio and video gear and the local spook whisperers incantations. We heard, saw and recorded nothing but a few dust notes out of focus in the uv night vision. Which the believers got very exited about. finding a way to let them down gently was hard as they are good friends. Ps you spell it with a k to tell the movement from the word . No female genitalia involved.

  5. Steve Jones said,

    Apologies if I have this wrong, but the main line of this blog appears to be on the effectiveness of persuasion and not the rationalist approach that a sceptic might, in theory, choose. There has been a huge amount of effort put into those sort of studies. I’m not a psychologist, but I think you’ll find that this is not a neglected area. However, I’m not sure many of the tools of this site easily with many with a rationalist mind set. It seems to be an argument about advocacy rather that rationalism and evidence. That’s the stock in trade of advertisers, politicians, leaders, barristers. salesman, marketeers, journalists and many others. I know this stuff is important to get things done, but it’s not at the core of deciding what the right thing is.

    Many political leaders are not of such a rationalist mind set. I realise they aren’t easily persuaded by such evidence, indeed the problems they deal with are often too complicated to deal with on the basis of rationalist thinking alone. The sort of semi-faith based approach of the politically committed (whether in the wider political sense, or single issues, like vaccines) is always going to be be difficult to engage using the arguments of rational scepticism. It’s extremely difficult to counter emotional and personal based argument with what appear to be the coldly objective. A TV report on an autistic child with a struggling parent blaming some medical procedure is always going to carry greater weight with many of the public than any amount of statistics. An interview with somebody who lost a relative at Potter’s Bar will be effective in a way that statistics on the cost effectiveness of accident prevention in different transport will appear inhuman. However, this has to be done.

    The arguments are for the very heart and soul, to use a distinctly non-objective phrase, of public policy decision making. It is whether it is, where possible, to be based on some rational criteria rather than the whim of a journalist or politician. There is plenty of scope for values. ethics and principles in deciding priorities and overall aims. However, the proper place of rationalism needs to be fought for. Opposition to NHS funds being spend on homeopathy should not be justified on the wastage of what are fairly insignificant sums, but on principle. The same might be said of creationism creeping into biology teaching. I think the value of rational and sceptical thought is what requires defending here.

    As far as name calling goes, then I’m personally very against calling people morons (which Ben Goldacre does rather a lot). However, saying somebody is deluded is manifestly not the same as saying they are necessarily mentally ill. Certainly delusion can arise from some forms of mental illness, but you can also be deluded through a false belief, fraud, incorrect assumptions, personal persuasion or any number of other ways. It may well not be a good way of starting a discussion, but for sure it is an accurate way of describing what lies behind many of the wilder conspiracy theories, anti-vax campaigns much alternative AIDS thinking, vitamin overloaders and the like,.

    As for being called smug or arrogant, then it hasn’t happened to me personally, but I’ve certainly been associated with this by implication through the support of arguments of others. However, I rather tend to think that sort of name calling is part of the defense mechanism of some people. I’m also personally very uncomfortable with the use of personal and emotional argument to win arguments. It’s simply not what I am happy doing (and any attempt would be disastrously bad on my part).

  6. Stevyn Colgan said,

    Very interesting read. I try my damnedest not to come across as smug or arrogant but I’m still occasionally tarred with that brush. That said, it’s intensely difficult to remain calm, collected and sensible when the person in front of deliberately ignores properly obtained and accurately tested evidence placed before them. That is arrogance surely? It’s just red rag to the bull for me.

    I’m all for intelligent discussion and I’m open to new ideas (that’s what being a sceptic means as far as I’m concerned). I’m also happy for anyone to believe whatever they choose to, no matter how insane or unproven it may be. What I cannot bear, however, is blatant wilful ignorance. I’m at my most ‘arrogant’ when faced with die-hard Christian fundamentalists who insist that every word in the Bible is true. It only takes a short exchange before my hackles rise up and out comes my prepared deconstruction of the Noah’s Ark story.

    I’m not sure if I will ever be seen as anything other than arrogant by those whose viewpoint is ideaologically and evidentially opposed to my own. However, I will continue to air my own thoughts, feelings and beliefs when the appropriate opportunity arises, just as you are all free to do. Just don’t get all eggy with me if I don”t see things your way.

  7. Arakwai said,

    I do worry that sometimes skepticism can come across as arrogant and patronising to some. I can understand many skeptics frustration when skepticism and the need for reliable evidence seems so obvious. I can not get my head around the fact that in the 21st century politicians and journalists have to *state* they support evidence based policy! As opposed to …? However, as a science teacher I can’t start my lessons with the attitude, as a colleague of mine used to, only half joking, ‘Pearls before swine, pearls before swine’. Sadly if I treat my kids like idiots, the majority don’t determine to prove me wrong, they assume I’m right and give up :-( If, however, I show them evidence and, yes, guide them towards the accepted answer until they figure it for themselves, suddenly I can play Devil’s advocate and they’ll be up in arms convincing me of what they’ve ‘discovered’ ;-) It may be frustrating sometimes but from my, admittedly limited, experience, if we can make people feel included in a ‘did you know…’ kind of way, they will be more receptive and open- minded than if they feel mocked or patronised. I feel the best science educators, and there are some fantastic ones out there at the moment, do this superbly and *share* their passion with the audience. Hmmm, they really should hand out OBEs for that ;-)

  8. Fontwell said,

    If anyone is confident about their views and backs them up with evidence they will come across as arrogant to someone with the opposite view. If you want to fashion some kind of faux humbleness that’s your prerogative but I say just get over it and don’t be such a wuss.

    As long as you explain your logic, anyone genuinely open to persuasion will still hear it. There might even be a case to be argued that by wanting to show you are wrong, these people will be forced to really engage with your arguments.

    Naming calling and rudeness is not very nice in any situation but beyond that, if someone thinks I’m smug, then that’s I price I’m prepared to pay for being right.

    As for ‘delusional’, what do you call someone who talks to a magic man in sky if not deluded?

  9. Ruth Seeley said,

    Who was it who said the first person to raise their voice in an argument is the one who loses the argument? Was it the same person who said you get more flies with honey than with vinegar?

    So nice to see you expand on @jackofkent’s short post.

  10. Endless_Psych said,

    On evidence for how to persuade people: I’m willing to help develop a protocol for looking into the issue RE: Skeptical issues and debunking. Although I suspect the psychology of politics might be of more use than the psychology of selling stuff (Not to denigrate Cialdinis work but that is it’s main focus – particularly in the book to which you refer).

    Authority: You might reasonably think this but this doesn’t appear to be the case – these people are afterall just shills for big pharma. Indeed when someone holds an anti-vax (or other related belief unsupported by science) there may be complex reasons for this. Part of it may be linked to an anti-science worldview which leads them to disregard the authority of a scientist or doctor and trust that of someone presenting themselves as an alternative or independent source of evidence. The shill aspect is typically depolyed in order to question the honesty and veracity of a source – by claiming they have some vested interest to be true.

    So anti-vaccination (and many other beliefs) can trump persuassion via authority quite easily: simply by not recognising the authority or engaging in cognitive dissonance to degrade the source. You can also observe this with the scientific impotence disconfirming hypothesis (sure to become as big a skeptic fave as the Dunning-Kruger effect I’ll bet) proposed by Munro in March of this year (2010). Basically people when presented with scientific evidence that contradicts their own beliefs are more likely to question whether the topic at hand is aminiable to scientific research or enquiry.

    Liking: I’d tend to think that this is one that could be worked – but you have to address the thorny issue of getting someone to like you while adopting what is essentially a paternalistic role of “correcting them”. The only way I could see it work would be if you took the person to the evidence and hoped they think. But you can’t take a woo to evidence and make them think – they will probably just interpret the evidence in light of their own understanding or prejudices (or employ the scientific-impotence excuse) and the net result of a “softly, softly” your best buddy the skeptic approach would be an increase in the strength of their woo belief. Perhaps if there was a non-patronising way to suggest we are giving the gift of evidence, reason and critical thinking it might be utilised and employed to great effect. But it needs to be carefully considered how this is done. As not everyone can be similar to those they wish to debunk, compliment, cooperate with and some folks probably really do have a face for blogging…

    Reciprocation: This perhaps explains why skeptics have so much bother with their perception. Because as the motto goes “you are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts” thus we recipirocate in terms of social norms and niceties of conversational discussion. We don’t conceed that much ground as we are generally discussing things which have been shown to be correct by science. Can we recipirocate and say “well yes perhaps vaccines could cause autism but generally not” – would we be addressing a belief if we were?

    In short I don’t think Cialdinis work translates well to communicating science and skepticism (or scepticism if you prefer) but I would be willing to do some (of not all) of the legwork required to get a study into how to persuade folks about skeptical issues of the ground if there was enough interest and support.

    Hell if there was any funding I’d do it in a heartbeat!

  11. Endless_Psych said,

    I posted up a comment but it hasn’t appeared :(

    It pointed out why Cialdini doesn’t really apply and presented my offer to colloborate on someone with research into this.


  12. Cybertiger said,

    Badmonkfishscience said,

    “Cybertiger. Get help”

    Help with what? It’s 325jdc wot needs help wiv ‘is speling.

  13. jdc325 said,

    Good evening Cybertiger. Thanks for commenting again on the unusual spelling of ‘skeptics’. The American spelling tends to be favoured over the British spelling by UK skeptics, I think because they want to distinguish themselves from climate change sceptics and/or HIV-Aids sceptics. I have no strong feelings either way, but used the US spelling in this post as it was written about the very skeptics who deliberately call themselves ‘skeptics’ rather than ‘sceptics’.

  14. jdc325 said,

    Sorry EP – the spam filter picked your comments up for some reason. No idea why. I’ve fished them both out now, anyway.

  15. Martin said,

    It’s always easier to criticise than propose. All the same, the use of tact and persuasiveness depends largely on the existing atmosphere in the debate. Amongst friends it tends to be light, amongst the already antagonistic on-line debates (heh, where, for example, any sort of GW skepticism seems to be associated with HIV/AIDS skepticism) such consensual working-torwards-agreement has long gone. Feel free to pick your own blame monkey for that.

  16. phayes said,

    “Skeptics who disagree with me and favour a more robust approach than mine might like to think about how they feel when they are referred to as smug or arrogant”

    Like a very clean and polished kettle.


  17. jdc325 said,


    I’m not sure I get your drift, could you please expand on what you’ve written?

  18. Fontwell said,

    @jdc325 he means like a freshly mown lawn. Or if you prefer, like when you start driving along an empty motorway at night.

  19. phayes said,

    Pot-kettle-black innit. Happens all the time in encounters with ‘non-skeptics’, as I’m sure you’re aware. Some ignorant arrogant and closed-minded crackpot/CAMster/quantum mystic calls you arrogant and closed-minded (less often smug, IME).

  20. jdc325 said,

    @phayes – ahh, gotcha. Penny took a long time to drop, but yes – I do see where you’re coming from now. The “closed-minded” complaint can be quite amusing when it comes from someone who is being rather dogmatic.

    @fontwell – please stop confusing me by posting analogies. I’m useless with analogies! (n=lots)

  21. jdc325 said,

    @Martin: “It’s always easier to criticise than propose.”
    Indeed – this is why my blog is based on criticising the way other people do things. Much easier than doing something genuinely constructive…

  22. phayes said,

    @jdc325 yeah – I often think it’s a pity the Guardian’s science talkboard doesn’t archive stuff so that every time I get called closed-minded by an ‘open-minded’ woo fan in CiF or whatever I could just link to the thread in which someone once posted something which I was initially convinced was arch Milgromic quantum crackpottery (and was appropriately rude about) but which its author turned up to (succesfully!) defend.

  23. ferocactus said,

    Very nice post. You say:

    “Jack has asked whether, to those whose cherished views are being questioned, skepticism comes across with “Tebbitite stridency” and posed the question “Is skepticism getting a reputation for arrogance and smugness?”

    I think the answer to those questions is probably “yes”. I’m not sure whether a reputation for arrogance and smugness is justified, but you have to address the perceptions people have rather than the perceptions you would like them to have.”

    Yes indeed!!!! I would say the answer to both questions is DEFINITELY YES. I started reading the Bad Science forum threads recently, and …er..how can I put this? … many posts reek of scientific triumphalism and come across as extremely arrogant to anyone who does not agree with their position. Persuasion rarely seems to be the aim. This sophomoric mockery of non-science isn’t making them any friends.
    And actually this does matter: bad science is a really good and useful forum.

    On art of persuasion, I will say only one thing.

    Suppose you are trying to persuade someone that homeopathy is quackery. How to do it?

    Do you endlessly point out that succussion and dilution make no scientific sense at all, that controlled trials show no effect, etc? This may sometimes work, but I suspect it is mostly entirely ineffective.

    The point is that if someone uses homeopathy, they are unlikely to use this rationalist style of evidence to make up their minds. In other words, they have committed to swallowing (more or less) the big homeopathic lie.

    But homeopaths tell many lies, not just this one. The way to break the influence of a liar is to attack the SMALL lies, not just the big ones. Let’s take an example: homeopaths constantly take quotes out of context to get support for their position. They regularly (and spectacularly) misquote Mark Twain, for example.

    Now someone who uses homeopathy has an emotional commitment to believing the guff about water-memory etc — but they are unlikely to have an emotional commitment to mis-quoting Mark Twain (or anyone else). If you can show that eminent homeopaths regularly argue with dishonest quotation (which they do), then you can discredit them rather effectively in the eyes of (at least some) believers.

    If you call someone a stupid dupe for believing anything so obviously absurd as “water-memory”, you will make them very angry, and they will resist you as hard as they can.

  24. jdc325 said,

    Thanks ferocactus.

    “Suppose you are trying to persuade someone that homeopathy is quackery. How to do it?”
    I’ve actually considered asking people how they would convince me that homeopathy wasn’t a useful treatment. I might give it a try.

  25. phayes said,

    “I started reading the Bad Science forum threads recently, and …er..how can I put this? … many posts reek of scientific triumphalism and come across as extremely arrogant to anyone who does not agree with their position. Persuasion rarely seems to be the aim. This sophomoric mockery of non-science isn’t making them any friends.” –ferocactus

    I think you should’ve read the forum title blurb before wading in with that bizarre commentary, ferocactus:

    “Bad Science. Click here for action, and all the fun of the fair: quackery, scare stories, miracle cures, iffy adverts, passing banter and the great british sport of moron baiting…”

    In the same way that a maths forum wouldn’t likely be set up with the aim of persuading people who disagree that 2+2=4, persuasion and making friends with morons, quacks, crooks and crackpots are not the aims of the BS forum, no. In fact people posting arrogant assertions of nonsense and illogic there /are/ sometimes met with patient persuasion – at least at first. Even so, the idea that the threads there ‘reek of scientific triumphalism’ and ‘arrogance’ is just pathetic. We really don’t care if the intransigently idiotic and ignorant feel they are being mocked and don’t want to be our friends.

  26. ClaireOB said,

    With regard to those whose cherished beliefs are being dismantled, I’m inclined to sympathise with those favouring a robust approach. Very often they simply will not accept the evidence and the defensive response is as far as you get. Robert Burton (no fan of stridency), in his book “On Being Certain: believing you are right even when you’re not” (http://www.rburton.com/) describes the reaction of Dr Andrew Weil to an rct into cranial osteopathy which failed to show it any better than placebo for childhood ear infections: he simply rejected the evidence and stuck with his ‘felt certainty’. And, as Upton Sinclair said – in a different context – “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”

    But I wonder about the probably quite large and perhaps potentially well-disposed audience of ‘fence sitters’ and whether they are perhaps being turned off by the stridency. I think a valuable function of skepticism/bad science type writing is to encourage people who perhaps have not had much contact with science to find out more about the value of the scientific method and critical thinking. If they are deterred by the tone of what they read, I think that is a pity and a missed opportunity.

  27. phayes said,

    “But I wonder about the probably quite large and perhaps potentially well-disposed audience of ‘fence sitters’ and whether they are perhaps being turned off by the stridency.” –ClaireOB

    Sure but then the appropriate tone depends on subject and audience and I think stridency and mockery may sometimes be the most appropriate /especially/ when the audience is not very science-literate. Homeopathy is the classic example: I’d contend that polite, scientist-to-scientist style evaluation of the clinical trial ‘research’ is likely to give relatively science-illiterate fence sitters entirely the wrong impression. A steady stream of richly deserved mockery and strident condemnation of its apologists is the right way to convey the truth about homeopathy to the science-naïve public, IMHO.

  28. Cybertiger said,

    Go boil your head, phayes, the pompous prat.

  29. ClaireOB said,

    You may well be correct, phayes, and perhaps my concerns have more to do with personal preferences (and those of people I know) in modes of discourse than with reality. As JDC states above, there does not yet seem to be evidence for the superiority of either approach, so we are left with speculation and subjective opinion. I don’t know if there Is economic data on consumption of CAM since the skeptic/bad science communicators have been active? There have been welcome (IMO) developments regarding reduced NHS spending on & support for homeopathy but what about private consumption? If private spending on things like homeopathy, reiki etc is also going down that might indicate public support is diminishing .

    While I’m fretting on here, I have an allied concern about the perception of arrogance and smugness, which is that it is used by supporters of alternative medicine to bolster their caricature of cold, unfeeling conventional medicine obsessed with matching disease symptoms to drugs and neglecting the ‘whole person’ versus their compassion, holism etc etc etc. Again, I’m not sure if this more in my head than a reality, i.e if this caricatured view is widely subscribed to.

  30. phayes said,

    “Again, I’m not sure if this more in my head than a reality,” –ClaireOB

    I don’t thnk so. In my experience the CAMsters and anti-vaccine kooks frequently resort to that tactic. One well-known anti-vacciner has done so on *every* occasion he’s responded to a comment of mine online. (E.g. an illustration of a statistical point involving burglars and socks was interpreted as evidence that I had no more compassion for a parent of an autistic child than I would have for someone who’d lost a sock!). They ‘fight dirty’ and some of them are pretty good at it.

  31. jdc325 said,

    @phayes “the appropriate tone depends on subject and audience and I think stridency and mockery may sometimes be the most appropriate”
    I don’t think I can argue with the statement that the appropriate tone depends on subject and audience. Does this mean that I am now in favour of diverse approaches to skepticism?

    I do sometimes enjoy reading mockery of the advocacy of homeopathy (or the nonsense spouted by certain anti-vaccine lobbyists), and if it can sometimes be the best approach then maybe I can stop thinking of this as a guilty pleasure and enjoy it safe in the knowledge that it’s doing more good than harm.

    On the question of whether there is evidence in favour of either approach, there’s a post here:

    Unfortunately research on aggressive language as an effective means of outreach in rationalist grassroots communities is rather thin. No specific study provides us with an insight into how ridicule might effectively address irrational beliefs. The best we can manage is to extrapolate from the small amount of research done in relative fields on similar topics.

  32. phayes said,

    @jdc325 “and if it can sometimes be the best approach … there’s a post here:”

    Quite likely not as often as I’d hoped then. Thanks for that. :)

  33. ClaireOB said,

    Thanks for the link, jdc325. Interesting. I instinctively find attractive evidence about bullying, humiliation being counter-productive and not in the interests of ‘rational outreach’ but then it also occurs to me that some real bullying – in the form of legal threats against websites and libel actions designed to silence critics – has come from CAM supporters/practitioners.

  34. jdc325 said,

    @Claire: “it also occurs to me that some real bullying – in the form of legal threats against websites and libel actions designed to silence critics – has come from CAM supporters/practitioners”
    That made me think of phayes’s earlier comment: Pot-kettle-black innit. I’ve seen comments from advocates of Patrick Holford to the effect that calm, reasoned criticism of his work is vitriolic (and Holford himself once used the term to describe a certain Guardian columnist). Meanwhile, the same Patrick Holford once apparently sent a rather threatening letter to David Colquhoun of Improbable Science, in which he ‘fully reserved his right to take the matter further should his complaint not be resolved to his satisfaction’.

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