May 09 2011

A Failure to Engage

In my opinion society is best served with open and vigorous debate about important topics of the day. Such debates are most effective, however, when proponents of opposing views are actually engaging directly with the claims and beliefs of the other side. This requires effort – to understand what the other side believes and why they believe it. This should be taught as a basic intellectual skill in school. Whenever confronted with a controversy, make a sincere effort to understand the best case that each side is putting forward.

In my (admittedly biased) experience, what I will call “fair engagement” is more the exception than the rule. It is easy to slip into accepting a straw-man caricature of the other side. We all do it to some degree. The danger for skeptics is to focus on the most extreme examples of a belief as if they are representative, while ignoring the more reasonable (if still wrong) end of the spectrum. But while there is a continuum, there are those who make a sincere effort to treat their opponents fairly, and those who are stramenticidal maniacs (sorry for my lack of Latin scholarship, but that’s as close as I can come to someone who likes to murder straw men).

The alternative medicine (CAM) community in particular seem to enjoy engaging with straw men of their opponents. It is partly a result of their genuine lack of understanding of our criticisms, but it is also a result of their propaganda. The CAM community (at least collectively) have mastered the marketing of their ideas. They manage to frame the discussion in a way that completely distorts the actual points that are in dispute – in their favor.

My recent appearance on the Dr. Oz show is an excellent example. The discussion was frames as, “why are some doctors afraid of alternative medicine.” Throughout the discussion it was clear that Dr. Oz was making no attempt to engage with my actual points, or to understand my position. He had a cartoon version of my position in his head, and he was going to stick with it no matter what I said. In his cartoon version, what he calls “hold outs” against the coming CAM wave are dismissive, arrogant, and closed-minded.

His questions to me were all loaded with straw men. He claimed that my position was that CAM modalities were not tested, when in fact many have been. Rather, my stated position was that to the degree that they have been tested the results are largely negative.

This is just one public example. I have received hundreds of e-mails from CAM defenders who take the same positions – all straw men of the science-based medicine position. In debates I have been told that “skeptics” claim that we should only accept treatments that have a known mechanism of action. This is a setup, of course, because there are accepted mainstream treatments whose mechanisms are poorly understood.

Kimball Atwood recently pointed me toward another example – a “debate” about Traditional Chinese Medicine. It seems to be a strange debate, when all of the participants seem to be advocates. Here are some of the debating topics:

# Resolved: Acupuncture as a medical intervention technique should be disallowed because its mechanism of action cannot be scientifically proven.
# Resolved: The replacement of traditional Chinese medical vocabulary (that describes diseases, pathologies and treatments) by modern scientific medical vocabulary is an important development and should be encouraged as the standard.

The first is the very straw man I covered above. The lack of a plausible mechanism for acupuncture is surely a problem, but the far bigger problem is that the clinical data is largely negative. Regardless of mechanism, acupuncture does not seem to work.

The second topic is based upon the notion that a key difference between TCM and SBM is vocabulary – the culture in which ideas are understood and expressed. That is another straw man attack I often here – that skeptics do not like TCM or other such systems because they are not stated in the “Western” jargon with which we are familiar. Our skepticism is portrayed as just xenophobia.

I won’t say vocabulary is irrelevant, because words reflect ideas. But it is the underlying ideas that are at issue – do TCM concepts of health and illness reflect reality? Focusing on the jargon is a way of not engaging with the real issue, the real basis of our skepticism, and instead to focus on a superficial aspect that becomes a straw man of our position.


The examples I have given above are just a few of many examples within CAM, and there are many topics that fall into a similar pattern. I rarely, in fact, encounter a reasonable understanding of the skeptical position among proponents of any belief that is a common target of skepticism.

The same is true of many intellectual areas as well, especially wherever there is an emotional component. I have friends and family that range the political spectrum, and I find it interesting to listen to both sides completely mischaracterize the positions of the other side. It’s as if they never actually talk to each other. Each side is isolated within an echo chamber of their own reality.

To be clear – what I am saying is that this kind of behavior is common across all belief systems, and is probably the default mode of human behavior. Skeptics fall into this as well, although the very nature of skepticism involves rigorous self-examination, so hopefully we are a bit more reflective on this behavior than average. But we are certainly not immune.

It is important to remember the importance of making a sincere effort to understand a position with which you disagree, and not to prematurely or excessively focus on those aspects which are easiest to attack, or which likely represent a distorted cartoon of the position.

At the same time, it is important to remember that your position exists on a spectrum, and there are likely people who hold a weaker version of your position. When someone is arguing against a variant of your position, it does not necessarily mean they are attacking a straw man of your position. This false straw man charge is also common.

This problem is the flip side of what I have been describing above, and both seem to result in part from a failure to recognize that opinions exist on a spectrum – both our own and those of others. We should endeavor to understand and engage with the best case that can be made for a position with which we disagree, but also recognize that at times variants of our own positions will become the target of criticism.

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