Sigh. I sat ruminating about this for hours days. But ultimately I want to comment on this piece by Brian Dunning about criticism.
I originally had a huge thing written out, but the main point I want to make (with some elaboration) is this:
Dealing with things privately doesn’t always yield results (see about the 39:00 mark onward for my point, but the entire episode is good – available on iTunes).
I really don’t like the idea of keeping things quiet for the sake of public image – particularly because silence can sometimes be taken for agreement. And I really don’t like someone “at the top” telling me what is and is not appropriate (that word is used a lot in his post).
The determination of what is an appropriate way to handle criticism of a public figure is subjective. Does he contact everyone he criticizes on his podcast? Or are the rules different when it’s “the enemy”? Even if he does, good for him, but why do the rest of us necessarily have to follow that method? Does having a popular blog and/or podcast give someone special privilege to decide what is appropriate behaviour for the rest of us? I wasn’t aware that we were an organization of elites and proles.
Without a link to the blog in question, and that’s probably for the best anyway to protect this person from fanboy assault, it’s impossible to determine how “appropriate” (ho hum) my reaction is – I have no idea if it was “brian dunning sux balls!!111” or if it was constructive criticism. So my comments/reactions may be off base. But to the main idea that things should be dealt with privately, otherwise we’re dragging everyone down by not really paddling – I disagree. I do agree that empty ad hominems are unproductive, but open criticism and discussion are entirely “appropriate”.
Publicly and openly is how objective inquiry works. Are we supposed to abandon that to preserve some sort of twisted sense of tribalism? I think the point is, there is no right way. We have to find some sort of balance. I don’t think anything can be gained from either extreme – private vs. ad hominem. There must be some middle ground and different situations may benefit from different approaches.
Maybe he was only referring to public ad hominem as inappropriate. Fine. But then, what, it’s ok to treat people who write into a podcast (or who are the subject of that podcast) as cranks so long as they are the “enemy”? Why are skeptics so open to treating non-skeptics like garbage? If it’s not ok against each other, it shouldn’t be ok against our opponents. How is that any less damaging to our image?
UPDATE: Steven Novella also comments.