Jul 18 2016

Taking the High Road

skeptical-activismI am passionate about science and critical thinking. I believe these to be the best tools humans have for understanding the universe and tackling the challenges that face us. This is why I am a science communicator and skeptical activist.

Part of this passion is that blatant anti-science, credulity, and fraud are genuinely upsetting. Homeopathic potions are approved drugs, the medical profession is soft on pseudoscience as long at it is presented in flowery language, some people want to teach their religious beliefs as science in the public schools, pseudoscience in the courtroom leads directly to injustice, and there are organized and well-funded groups who are rabidly opposed to safe and effective technologies because of irrational fears.

Some of the forces behind irrationality and pseudoscience in our world are straight-up con artists. They are exploiting scientific illiteracy and lax regulations to knowingly defraud people. Many think they are just being slick marketers, and this is how business is done. Or, they are scientifically illiterate themselves and they actually think the pseudoscience they are selling is legitimate.

Many, however, mean well but are trapped inside their own ideology. They are equally passionate, perhaps even more so, about their issue. They feel they need to do everything they can to oppose what they see as an evil in the world (vaccines, fluoride, GMOs, mainstream medicine, evolution, etc.). This justifies in their minds some extreme tactics, such as harassing scientists, slandering their opponents, vandalizing scientific experiments, or lying when necessary. Some of them become extremely nasty people as a result.

This, of course, only serves to fuel the passion of the science advocates.

The fact that both sides are passionate leads some to a position of false equivalency – that both sides are just defending their tribe and their ideology. Both sides would say, “Yeah, but we’re right, and they are wrong,” as if that is the important distinction. It isn’t. (Of course I think the scientific side is correct and the ideological side is wrong on all of these issues, but that is incidental to the real distinction.)

What really distinguishes skeptical activism from anti-science groups is process. My activism is not pro-evolution, pro-GMO, or pro-vaccine – it is pro science and critical thinking. Science and critical thinking are a process, not a position. That process values objectivity, humility, a deference to facts, logical validity, scientific rigor, and openness to change. If the scientific evidence revealed the GMOs were inherently unsafe I would change my position.

This means that our activism must follow the same valid process. We cannot lie in order to promote the truth, we cannot use deception to promote transparency, and we should not engage in personal attacks even to oppose shameless con artists. We have to take the high road.

Recently Kevin Folta wrote a commentary on his blog taking the same position. He has been the target of a smear campaign and of personal harassment, just for being an effective science communicator. Two weeks ago someone broke into his office at his university, presumably looking for incriminating evidence that Kevin is secretly a shill for Monsanto or some nefarious group. They found nothing because there is nothing to find.

In response to some science advocate trying to fight fire with fire, he writes:

I’m disgusted.  When I see allegedly science-minded people using FOIA to interrogate the records of those they disagree with, when I see science advocates coordinating mass reporting of websites they don’t like, when I see harmful epithets and four-letter words being used to personally harm those they disagree with…  I’m out.  I do not want to be part of that tribe.

He adds:

You will win this the right way, with data and evidence, by being a teacher.

I agree. I would emphasize that this applies within our group as well as without, and I think that is what Kevin is doing. Sometimes we reserve our greatest ire and passion for those closest to us, probably because it feels like there is an element of betrayal involved. Education and conversation works there too, however, probably even better than with those who share fewer of our values.

Often the comments of this very blog, or on the SGU Facebook page, erupt in heated discussions. The passion is clearly evident, and often warranted. I am not recommending pulling punches, being soft, nor am I speaking specifically of tone. I would simply remind people that if your goal is to represent science and critical thinking as a process, you might want to adhere to that process in the advocacy itself.

I often find it tricky myself to be passionate without being angry, to be firm without being harsh, and to expose dishonesty without making it seem personal. From a tactical point of view, the fact is that if you show your passion, it will be used against you, to portray you as an ideologue. You cannot prevent this – no matter what you do, it will be distorted and unfairly used against you, but you don’t want to make it easy for them.

Everyone needs to sort out for themselves how best to balance passion and process, according to their personality and goals. I cannot give a single prescription. I do think it is good to be aware of these factors, and to take a thoughtful approach rather than an emotional one.

It may be particularly challenging for skeptical activists. We need to be passionate about being dispassionate, promote an anti-ideological ideology, participate in a movement of individualists, market ideas about the dangers of marketing, and essentially to get people not to trust or believe us – to be skeptical of everything, even of the skeptics.

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