The only response, so far, to our article climate change is real, and important is here, on a site I suspect many regard as having a title that is slightly disingenuous. The main crticism of our article was simply the tone; we used denier, denialist, deny. Okay, anyone’s free to judge something on tone if they wish, but it doesn’t make the content wrong. Also, as I pointed out to the author of that post on Twitter, his criticism seemed a little selective, given that the tone of the article we were criticising, wasn’t great either.
I thought, however, that I might make some general comments about tone; Joshua will probably disagree 🙂 I get the impression that some regard scientists as public figures who are fair game; that it’s okay to vitriolically criticise them if they present research, or say something, with which you might disagree. Well, they aren’t really. Most are simply people who have jobs in which they teach and do research. Most are simply trying to do research in an unbiased and an objective way. They don’t always get it right (in fact, in some sense, it’s probably never right) but getting things wrong – and learning from it – is a normal part of the scientific process; it’s not a reason to make accusations of fraud and malpractice. So, if someone wants to write an article that makes – explicitly, or implicitly – such accusations, I don’t think they can expect some kind of mild-mannered response. If they think they have the knowledge to write such an article in the first place, I don’t think it’s reasonable to then expect to be treated with kid’s gloves.
Of course, one could argue that even if a certain tone is justified, a different tone may be more effective. There may well be some truth to this, but I’m not always that convinced that there is. It also depends on the intent. A more conciliatory tone may help to influence the undecided. A blunter tone may convince others to be more careful if they are thinking of writing an article of their own. However, there is another reason why I have little interest in tone specifically. Science is a method. We start to trust some scientific idea when it has been reproduced and replicated; not because those involved appear trustworthy and honest. Of course, you can choose to dismiss something if it is from someone you regard as untrustworth, or dishonest, but in such cases one should ideally talk to many more people, not simply accept some kind of alternative.
Essentially, I think we should be careful of trying to impose some kind of ideal public behaviour on scientists. Those who choose to engage publicly, largely do so because they think they’re involved in an interesting topic that is worth discussing with others. They’re not, however, trying to sell the public anything; they’re simply trying to explain their research to those who might be interested (as an aside, this is why I find the “deficit model has failed” argument annoying). If anything, seeing scientists getting frustrated and annoyed is – IMO – much more honest than a scenario where they learn to behave more like salespeople, than like people who feel passionately about some topic.
To be clear, though, I’m not encouraging, or condoning, incivility. In a sense, I’m largely suggesting that saying what you actually believe is more honest than trying to develop some kind of style that you think might be effective, but doesn’t really reflect what you really think. I’m also definitely not condoning, or excusing, actual scientific fraud or malpractice. If someone has actual evidence of that, go ahead and point it out. It’s a serious accusation, though, so you’d better be right. In essence, I’m really arguing in favour of honesty. I realise that some people may be put off by tone, and that’s entirely their right. Ideally, though, they should simply investigate further, not assume that the tone somehow invalidates what’s being said.
Feel free to disagree through the comments, though. The more I engage in this topic, the less I think I understand what works and what doesn’t.