Or, Why Naming Names Is a Virtue
So, you’ve got what you think is a problem in your community. You know you’ve got a bunch of arguing happening, and you observe what you believe to be fallacies mixed in, probably due to the strong feelings the topic brings u. You have some strong feelings yourself, whether about the community or the subject or about the behavior you witness. Your SIWOTI meter is pegged. What do you do?
What you don’t do is write something like Steve Cuno did at the Swift blog:
I can only hope that you will join with me in my outrage. Brine shrimp eggs are ripped from their natural habitat and shipped to hatch far from family and friends. Many eggs do not survive the arduous trip. The lucky ones that survive do not live free, but are doomed to an unfulfilling aquarium life as the “property” of snot-nosed kids. It is not unlike the early slave trade in the U.S.
If you are tempted to click “Add Comment,” be forewarned. Should you challenge my likening the brine shrimp trade to the slave trade, or question whether brine shrimp are capable of feeling fulfilled or unfulfilled, or ask me to back up the claim that kids are snot-nosed … I have an ace up my sleeve. I shall call you a racist. Nay, even better, I shall accuse you of being pro-slavery.
It’s a nifty, sleight-of-mind trick that lets me get away with begging the question, setting up a straw man and launching an ad hominem attack, all while looking like I’m defending decency. Heck, I may even fool myself.
Erm, what? This is sabotaging skepticism from the inside by entwining the claim with the cause, as the title of the piece claims? Nah. It’s just a big strawman argument, since there are no brine shrimp in skepticism, and Steve is just trying to use his platform to alienate those skeptics with whom he disagrees.
See how easy that was?
Not only is it easy, but it incorporates two lessons we (the collective but diverse skeptical movement) really should have learned already with Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” speech:
Point the First
Vague arguments about some unnamed people doing things wrong is simply going to throw fuel on every little disagreement within your movement. I’ve already been told by several people that I’ve done some ridiculous thing wrong. Those charges were behaviors that absolutely would have been wrong, had I committed them, but they bore no resemblance to anything I’d actually done.
When I’ve been under attack that way for as long as I have, why should I trust that you’re not doing the same thing? You’ve been paying attention to what’s going on, right? You’ve seen that people have done this, right? Then why would you not take the time–always assuming you don’t mean to be doing exactly what others have done to me–to separate yourself from those people by being very specific about the behavior to which you’re objecting?
Even if I don’t decide that you’re working to attack me based on nonexistent behavior of mine, the people who have been doing so are still out there. They are your new best friends, whether that was your intention or not. They’re very happy to see that you agree with them, whether you do or not. By being vague–I’ll assume, for argument’s sake, in an attempt to not take a side–you’ve done their work, which becomes impotent in the presence of specifics. Even if your intent was only to point at a few very egregious examples of bad behavior, you’ve become a spokesperson for those who dislike perfectly reasonable behavior that vaguely resembles your vague admonitions.
Point the Second
You’re treating behavior as isolated events with common goals. Neither of these is true. As was explained to Phil time and again, not all behavior is aimed at making allies. Not all people are worth arguing with. Not all interactions are first contacts and should be judged as such. Not all insults are ad hominems.Some topics, like evolution, anthropogenic global warming, sexism, and racism, involve arguments with long histories of denialist claims raised and debunked. When we are engaging in education on those topics, yes, we frequently want to specifically address the denialist claims. When we are educating, we assume there is a need that is worth our time to address. When we set out to educate, we commit our time and energy to the purpose of overcoming the denialism.
However, we’re not always educating. Nor should we be. Sometimes we’re not educators but biology geeks who want to talk about how cool some process or outcome of evolution is. Sometimes we’re policy wonks who want to talk about what may work most quickly to combat AGW and how long we have to implement it. Sometimes we’re minorities wanting to share our experiences with each other or people concerned with outreach to underrepresented groups. When those things happen, we are not educating or trying to educate.
That doesn’t mean the denialist arguments stop. What it does mean is that those denialist arguments are exactly what they are intended to be: distractions. If you then look at me dealing abruptly with a denialist distraction because I’ve got something else to do, and if you then criticize me for not educating the denialists, you’re missing the point spectacularly. And if you’re vague about what exactly it is that you’re objecting to, I–having other things to do–am going to assume that’s as close to having a point as you’re going to get. Then I’ll get on with my day, because it’s much more interesting than dealing with vague nonsense.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a point to being nice, a la Phil. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a point to dealing in the arguments and evidence that support social causes, a la Steve. What it does mean is that unless people are specific about what and where they think these problems occur in our movements, I’ve got no idea whether they have an accurate picture of what’s happening in those arguments they’re complaining about, wherever they may occur. I have no idea what they think they’re trying to accomplish.
Given that, as long as they stay vague (which, to his credit, Phil tried not to do), I’m not particularly interesting in helping them. Not even vaguely.