Debating Science – Is there a Place for Rudeness?

By Michael Edmonds 11/05/2011 12


Occasionally in the skeptical/science blogosphere there is a debate over how to deal with proponents of pseudoscience. Some argue that every tool should be used to debunk pseudoscience, including rudeness, aggressiveness and insults.

I usually prefer a less aggressive approach, by trying to understand the other person’s views, and challenging them on the basis of the (lack of) evidence and the scientific method. A good sense of humour also helps as well.

The following clip is a good reminder of why it pays not to be too rude to others.


12 Responses to “Debating Science – Is there a Place for Rudeness?”

  • It’s quite interesting that when discussing with creationist college students why their views aren’t just wrong but totally useless, they are quite taken aback, surprised even, when I’m friendly, good natured, and polite. I think it makes them wonder that maybe if we aren’t like what they’ve been told, then maybe other things aren’t like what they’ve been told either.

  • I sort of mostly agree. Rudeness isn’t my style either but that’s not to say it doesn’t have it’s place or that it isn’t effective for some people.

    I was listening to an interview with August Berkshire of Minnesota Atheists on the related topic of rudeness with religious beliefs and he somewhat changed his mind on the utility of the approach when he came across a woman who admitted that her mind was changed by someone making fun of her beliefs.

    Sometimes ridicule is the correct response, other times a more reasoned approach is called for. I don’t think you are advocating a one-size-fits-all angle, so I’m fine with playing to your strengths. But, I’d say that if rudeness and insults are your only tools and you can’t back it up with reason then perhaps you aren’t cut out for participating in the debate.

  • Hi Darcy

    I sort of agree with you too. Occasionally I think it useful to be a little terse or use humour to make a point.
    Personally I don’t think insults are useful as they can result in an unproductive “flame war”. I’ve seen other argue quite strongly that they are useful (mainly on pharyngula) but I have yet to convinced.
    And sometimes it just makes sense to call a stupid idea stupid. Attacking the idea is fine, attacking the individual, I’m not comfortable with.

  • Certainly, we should be careful to separate the ideas from the people holding them.
    That’s how I interpreted “insult” as insulting to the idea not a personal attack, calling someone stupid for holding an idea is almost certainly counterproductive. Though, it can be insulting enough for some people to have their ideas ridiculed, it can feel like a personal attack even though it’s not.

    We should be careful to use the right tool for the job and treat people with as much respect as they deserve, for some this is a sliding scale.

  • Is snark okay? Sometime, I can’t help myself with that one. (It is the nicest kind of comeback I can think of for some people.) I find it useful – in that snark doesn’t have to be a personal attack, but may get a point across in a different way.

  • Was listening to another interview with Carol Tavris and she likes to make the point that how you frame your argument depends on who your expected audience is. Often I don’t consider the person I’m arguing with (online at least) to be my true target. The people reading the exchange are the target.

    So if you consider that using “snark” will carry your point to your intended audience in such a way as to help them understand the issues then sure.

  • I think the problem with creationists in particular, is that when you do take a reasoned and polite approach it can confuse the issue. That is, you appear prepared to take them seriously they- and others- may presume that they do have a case that’s worth examining. That’s not an impression I like to give people.

    In the end, I agree with the comments above. There is no universal right answer. Sometimes an aggressive response is merited, sometimes a bit of snark, sometimes politeness.

  • I think it is entirely reasonable to get a little snarky or terse after it becomes clear that someone is not thinking about what they are saying or when they just repeat the same tired arguments over and over.
    The “public” expects scientists to be have a human side and what is more human that to show annoyance when someone is being deliberately dense?
    Like most people my politeness has limits but I do try to draw the line at insults.
    It also pays to have a sense of humour. I find it much more therapeutic to be able to laugh at the stupid behaviour of others than to let it wind me up.

    No one has mentioned the video clip yet. I soooooo enjoyed it when I first found it.

  • ok, watched the video clip.
    I think that sums up what a lot of people would like to do to Ramsay. bit of a difference between a few choice targeted insults and streams of abuse though I think.

    On that note though, do have any (real) examples you think are the wrong way to go about things? Don’t want to argue a strawman here.

  • Darcy,
    Well, one example I have is from a colleague of mine who has a group of friends who would be best described as “new agey”. They were discussing whether creationism should be taught in schools. My colleague took the approach of explaining what science is, why creationism is all about belief and not science. A simple, non-aggressive educational approach which worked extremely well.

    As an example of not how to do it, one only has to spend some time on the Pharyngula website. There are some wonderfully articulate, clever people on there, but there are also a few who have hair trigger sensitivities and who will be quite vicious in their attack on others, even when to me it looks like they have misread the person’s point of view. I’ve seen long nasty arguments completely sidetrack some fascinating debates on Pharnygula.

    Also if you look at a lot of the psychology around influencing or persuading others – aggressive approaches can work in the short term but often result in resentment and a back lash which only strengthens pseudoscientific beliefs. Effective, long lasting (and ethical) persuasion relies on patience, explanation, empathy, and listening to the other persons point of view in order to locate commonalities before focusing on the differences.

    When people say that an insult/criticism caused them to turn away from pseudoscience I do wonder if this is perhaps confirmation bias – that perhaps the insult/criticism is the event they remember but that there may have also been a gradual absorption of other factors that allowed them to turn away from pseudoscience.

    I’m not saying that aggression/criticism or even insults may not have a place. But I would suggest they are a last resort, IF your goal is to convince them that they are wrong.
    My observation is that most people use insults as a way to make themselves feel better or to impress others who share their beliefs rather than as a conscious effort to change someone’s position.

    Also, I agree that when writing a response to an hard core pseudoscience believer, the intended audience is often other readers of the blog. Under these circumstances I think politeness is important as our natural instinct is to side with the underdog/person who is being attacked. So if we are polite and the other person is insulting, the reader is more likely to side with us.
    Having said that, I also think that after sustained rudeness from someone else there is nothing wrong with being a little rude back. And humour can be a great way to do this. After all, if a certain pseudoscientist were to suggest to you that they would rather lick the underside of a toilet seat instead of take a vaccine could you resist suggesting that he do so and then compare notes with me after I had my flu shot? 🙂

  • Yeah, I don’t spend much time on Pharyngula, I go over if a particularly interesting article is pointed out to me.
    I notice you seem to be referring to the commenters rather than PZ.
    I often find commenters to be more, shall we say fervent, than what they are commenting on.

    Would you say that PZ’s content foments this kind of behavior (and therefore is itself worthy of criticism) or that he simply allows it to happen. Obviously there is quite a few commenters, difficult to keep order if you also have a day job.

  • Darcy,

    PZ Myers’ blog Pharyngula is an interesting forum. I find it to be more of an atheist and political commentary blog than a science blog. His blogs more often than not criticise politics and religion and his blogs tend to be quite provocative. Not quite my style but he often brings to the fore some very interesting and important issues.
    Any blog, in my opinion can be criticised. We live in an imperfect world and everyone views life differently. No blog gets everything right all the time or appeals to everyone. We do need people vociferously drawing attention to important social issues and political and religious blunders. But we also need those who take a more softly softly approach often behind the scenes.
    And I think it would be a full time job to regulate Pharyngula. As it is, largely unmoderated, it is fascinating to watch debates and arguments unfold – a fascinating and largely unrestrained microcosm of humanity.

Site Meter