Learning from Even the Harshest of Critics

By Michael Edmonds 25/06/2011

An article I had published in the NZ Skeptics magazine has resulted in a rather scathing and inaccurate review by blogger Ron Smith.

The intent of my article was to suggest ways to develop a constructive dialogue with those who I described as wingnuts – those who aggressively introduce misinformation into discussions about science. However, Mr Smith has interpreted my article as “an arrogant and self-satisfied diatribe against those who have the temerity to disagree with him [i.e. me].”

Specifically he sees the article as an attack on those who resist climate change, assuming that I class such people as “wingnuts”.

This is news to me, as this is not what the article was about.

In my article I state that “Science has revealed new challenges for humankind, such as climate change and depletion of resources.”

Mr Smith misinterprets as follows. “In the very first paragraph, Edmonds gives two examples of the sort of ‘wingnuttery’ he is talking about. One of these is resisting the challenge of ‘climate change’. I suppose he means by this, expressing doubt about the thesis that the planet faces a serious problem concerning anthropogenic global warming.”

My experience is that whenever someone uses the phrase “I suppose” it is usually followed by something with no evidence to back it up.

He then suggests, using the “I suppose” phase again, that I must be calling all of those who disagree with climate change  “unhinged activists”. This is a careless misquote of a phrase I used earlier in the article. The only opponent to climate change that I mention is Christopher Monckton, who is well known for his erroneous arguments in arguing that climate change is not occurring.

Indeed, if Mr Smith were to have read my article more carefully he would have realised that my comments about climate change were not about climate change itself but my concern about the misinformation that is used on BOTH sides of the debate.

“one only has to look at the mess that has resulted in the climate change debate. Personal attacks from both sides of the debate — accusations of conspiracy, impropriety, etc — have confused the public and risk having climate change dismissed as ‘too hard’ to deal with.”

In my article, I suggest that when debating one should:

“Use precise, simple and neutral language. It is easy to be misunderstood, especially via written language. So, one should keep the language as precise and simple as possible. A choice of neutral language helps maintain a calm exchange of ideas.”

Mr Smith somehow twists this to suggest that I consider those who might disagree with me are “simple persons of limited education.”

Mr Smith says of rule number 3 in my article – respond to rudeness in a calm manner – “By rudeness he presumably means referring to persons with whom you disagree as ‘wingnuts, or ‘unhinged activists’.”

He then goes on to say “It seems like a good principle, to me and I am certainly attempting to follow rule 3 in my response to Dr Edmonds article.”

Such a statement is completely disingenuous given the quite personal attacks he makes in his blog.

However, even from the most scathing and inaccurate of criticisms lessons can be learnt. Mr Smith has taken exception to my use of the word “wingnut” early in the article and this appears to have tainted his interpretation of the rest of the article.

Perhaps this is a fair point. An alternative, more neutral, term might have been better.

This does not of course excuse the inaccurate and scathing nature of Mr Smith’s comments. However, in the words of Joseph Addison

“There is no defense against criticism except obscurity”

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