A Brief Guide To Deflecting Criticism

November 1, 2011 at 5:40 pm (Miscellaneous) (, , , , )

Anecdotally, I’ve found that people don’t, in general, like to be criticised. While some people will seek out criticism in order to identify errors in their work (that they can then attempt to correct), for others criticism is unwelcome and they prefer to deflect it rather than take note of it. Here are some of the ways in which they attempt this.

The Well-Meaning Defence

A tactic I’ve written about before is the well-meaning defence. Here are the main points:

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.

Being nice, sincere, or well-meaning should not exempt someone from criticism of their actions as long as the criticism is fair. It doesn’t matter how saintly someone is – it’s fair to point out when they are wrong. When someone is wrong on an important matter (for example, a life-and-death issue such as vaccination against infectious diseases or taking precautions against HIV/Aids) I would argue that it’s not just fair to criticise a position, it’s the right thing to do. Allowing misinformation on such important topics to be disseminated without appropriate challenge could in practice mean failure to prevent actual physical harm as a consequence.

Whataboutery

There appear to be two distinct forms of whataboutery – the first is an attempt to neuter criticism by pointing out that the other side has done the same / similar things to the acts that they are critical of, the second is an attempt to downplay the seriousness of the behaviour being criticised by pointing to topics the commenter considers to be more important.

Slugger O’Toole describes the former here:

Evasion may not be the intention but it is the obvious effect. It occurs when individuals are confronted with a difficult or uncomfortable question. The respondent retrenches his/her position and rejigs the question, being careful to pick open a sore point on the part of questioner’s ‘tribe’. He/she then fires the original query back at the inquirer.

The latter does not involve an attempt to find equivalent bad behaviour on the part of the ‘other side’, but invokes unrelated topics that they consider to be more serious, more important, or more interesting. While there may be subjects arguably more worthy of debate, these topics are often being discussed by people who are well-placed to write about them. Allegations of racism, the challenges posed by global warming, or the existence of global poverty may well be more serious and/or more interesting than homeopathy, vitamin pills and magic crystal skulls – but those topics receive plenty of coverage elsewhere from people far better placed than I am to write about them. The existence of more serious subjects does not mean that no-one should write about topics perceived to be less important.

The “Sad Little Man” Gambit

A couple of years ago, I had a comment from someone upset that I was sceptical of magic crystal skulls. Their comment focused on portraying me as a sad little man: “you probably spend a lot of time being miserable and arguing, don’t like yourself very much and have troubles relating to the opposite sex”. While not a million miles away from the truth, I fail to see how this was relevant to the magic crystal skulls being discussed. It was nothing but an attempt at distraction. More recently, I had this comment from someone using the exact phrase sad little man.

Combining the sad little man gambit with some whataboutery, “Noneofurbeez” aims this at Simon Singh in the comments section under an article about Sally Morgan.

Just get over yourself and find something better to do with your time. How about political corruption, or global warming, or famine in Africa? Get a life dude.

The “Bashing” Defence

Beloved of anti-vaccine campaigners, the bashing defence allows them to deflect criticism by turning attention to a perceived “attack on parents”. Clifford Miller and John Stone, for example. Miller is the author of a graph that he wrongly claims demonstrates that the risk of death from measles infection in England and Wales is less than 1 in 55 million. The graph does not include deaths from measles in 2006, 2007, and 2008. In response to my raising this point, Miller replied with a callous dismissal of these deaths as being “boring” and “trivia”, and an unsubstantiated allegation of “parent bashing”.

You have been shown here to be someone who visits and runs parent/doctor bashing sites.

Now you turn up with trivia.

Boring.

The allegation of “parent bashing” was seemingly based on my referring to John Stone as “drearily ubiquitous” (hardly a savage and vitriolic comment). This comment was made in the context of my criticisms of a response Stone sent to the BMJ regarding an article on vaccination. Stone was writing in his capacity as ‘UK editor of Age of Autism’ rather than in his capacity as a parent. Characterising an entire blog as being “a parent/doctor bashing site” on the basis of one rather mild insult aimed at someone writing in their capacity as a journalist seems a little over the top to me. The reference to “doctor bashing” is perhaps even more of a stretch. It’s true that I’ve criticised Dr Sarah Myhill and Dr Richard Halvorsen, but I don’t think that my criticism of these doctors can be fairly described as “bashing”.

Notes

I aim to address rather than deflect criticism. If there are any errors in this or any other post then please do point them out to me.

Update, 8th January 2012

Other methods of deflecting (or suppressing) criticism include legal chill (I have a category for this here), the vitriol defence (because pointing out that people are wrong is “mean”), and the bogus claims of censorship that are sometimes made (when people, deliberately or otherwise, wrongly equate robust criticism with shutting down debate).

Blogger JQH is part way through a series of posts on deflecting criticism. Part One. Part Two. Part Three.

13 Comments

  1. Andi Mell said,

    Good post, James. I agree just because someone is well-meaning, sensitive, nice or sincere doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be subject to criticism. I’ve said it before, if you put your point of view out there, there could be a response and it may not be favorable. One thing you have missed out on is the fact that the criticizers should also have their facts straight, with a balanced view of all sides of the issue (and ideally not have a biased agenda). That unfortunately is something you have not been able to demonstrate. Pub Med is not the only source of information. Besides that interpreting a study and scrutinizing the data is a difficult task, which requires vast knowledge of the subject. The best of ones ability is not enough sometimes.

    You’ve been kind enough to answer my first question, please indulge me by answering the second.

  2. jdc325 said,

    “You’ve been kind enough to answer my first question, please indulge me by answering the second.”
    Which question have I left unanswered?

  3. josephinejones said,

    This isn’t relevant to your point but I wonder if Noneofurbeez is aware of the the time Simon Singh has spent actually speaking and writing about global warming. Google gives several examples of such work.

  4. jdc325 said,

    You’re quite right Josephine – Noneofurbeez’s whataboutery was ill-informed.

  5. bobrayner said,

    Nice list. Surely some more examples could be gathered? There’s the reflexive ad-hominem, of course. Or the careful pruning of critical comments (on facebook, blogs, forums &c). Or the British Chiropractic Association’s cunning use of a libel suit to respond to criticism. And finally there’s the Dana Ullman method…

  6. secrethen said,

    so what’s wrong with deflecting criticism anyway, I am sure it is usually done for a perfectly good reason. You are clearly a miserable, small person without any respect for your parents.

    (Will this do?)

  7. Martin said,

    Oooh like it. How about “that nutter made the same criticism as you did, and he’s plainly a nutter, therefore your criticism is also nutty. And you’re probably quite raisiny”.

    Or one I’m sure you’ve come across is “Who are you to criticise what I do? You’re not an expert”.

    Which can be a valid anti-criticism (is that a suitable term?!). Similarly ‘whataboutery’ can be used to indicate inconsisties in the criticism; you and O’Toole give it a particular meaning that could allow you to claim people are engaging in your definition of ‘whataboutery’ when they’re making an ordinary ‘whataboutery’ comparison. ie, you deflect criticism of your criticism… Such is the meta-meta debate…

    Anyhow I don’t think there are any people who actually truly do *welcome* criticism no matter how much they say they do, for any belief or activity they actually care about.

  8. Andi Mell said,

    @jdc325

    your educational background, James. What makes you such an expert of criticizing medical information.

  9. pv said,

    Andi Mell, anyone who can read and exercise a bit of critical thinking can criticise medical information. It’s not that difficult, especially when those making the claims aren’t themselves experts in their field.
    People like anti-vaxers, homeopaths etc., who make unevidenced claims (indeed claims for which all the evidence points to the contrary) should be criticised. It is our duty to criticise and hold them to the same scientific standards as any sector of the real medical industry.

    In reality I think you’ll find most of the unfounded criticism of the real medical industry comes from ignorant and unqualified quacks. For them it’s a business tactic. As I said, anti-vaxers, homeopaths and indeed practically all the Alternative Reality Medicine proponents, who are either ignorant and deluded or knowingly dishonest, feel free to criticise any medical information that doesn’t concur with their unevidenced fantasies.

  10. bobrayner said,

    It’s not boolean; everybody faces criticism from time to time. (As I was driving to work this morning somebody flashed their headlights at me because I drive like an arse).

    However, some people adopt a profession or a lifestyle which inherently attracts criticism; some of those genuinely deserve it, such as psychics or homeopaths. Since this criticism is aimed at a much bigger thing – the most important part of their belief-system rather than, say, whether they drive too fast or whether they like steak well done – this criticism can be much more painful, but it’s also much more *important*.

    Responses to criticism aren’t boolean either. Of course nobody’s perfect, but some make bad responses to criticism by default; they routinely say nasty things about critics, or try to silence them, or indulge in blatant fallacies (whether facetiously or ignorantly).

    If you were to make a reasoned criticism of my rant, then I might take it on board or I might deflect bits but, hey, the response wouldn’t be *that* bad. If you were to go to the british dowsers forum and make a reasoned criticism of dowsing, you’d find that your post disappears and your account and IP address are permabanned, but triumphantly fallacious replies by dowsers are left untouched.

  11. jdc325 said,

    @bob,

    Yes, I’ve had comments removed from Facebook pages (e.g. Find A Pox Party) and forums (e.g. Jabs). It’s generally pretty frustrating but can be amusing on occasion too (if they delete your comments but leave in place the rabid responses, for example).

    The BCA’s cunning use of libel law turned out not to be so cunning (given their underestimation of Simon Singh) but that is a particularly disturbing way to attempt to deflect criticism and stifle debate.

    Re D Ullman: I’ll just leave this here. Oh, and this… and this.

  12. jdc325 said,

    @SecretHen Nicely done.

    @Martin WRT the ‘ad hom by proxy’ deflection: “that nutter made the same criticism as you did, and he’s plainly a nutter, therefore your criticism is also nutty. And you’re probably quite raisiny”; I wonder if you’re thinking of those doubters who are tarred with the same brush as people like the more, er, interesting AGW sceptics…

    @Andi As I’ve already said, I don’t have a background in science or medicine. I have no relevant qualifications to declare. I haven’t claimed to be “an expert of criticizing medical information”, but if I’m making such a poor job of it then you’ll be able to point out my glaring errors won’t you? (And, I’m sure, substantiate your criticisms.)

    @PV Some good points there. Re: “anyone who can read and exercise a bit of critical thinking can criticise medical information” I think I agree but would add that ‘peer-review after publication’ can help. Which is where the people who comment on my blog come in. I’ve made mistakes in blog posts before, but the reason I am aware of them is because skeptics have pointed them out to me. I can’t think of any legitimate criticisms made by alt med advocates off-hand but it’s possible there may have been one or two.

  13. Neuroskeptic said,

    Regarding the “well meaning” defence, my philosophy is, if someone is nice but misguided then they deserve nice criticism, not a bashing. But if someone is wilfully obtuse, a deliberate scam artist, or if they make personal attacks on others, then they deserve the full force of ridicule.

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