Bully for you!

I have a list of topics to address in posts someday, and within them is one about the difference between bullying and criticism. I was reminded of it with a recent interchange between Jerry Coyne and Deepak Chopra, and so…

Deepak Chopra is the shining god of the pseudoscience, new age, mystical reality, mushrooms-lead-to-higher-consciousness crowd, a guy who trades on his MD to try and convince anyone that he actually knows what he’s talking about, regardless of the fact that he no longer practices anything he learned while obtaining the degree. Chopra has discovered one simple mantra, and it is repeated every time he opens his mouth: there are things we don’t know, therefore magic. Seriously, this is what it boils down to every time.

Unsurprisingly, he gets called on this a lot, and he responds the same way as so many other peddlers of bullshit: they cry that they’re being bullied, or attacked, or mistreated, or disrespected, and so on. This actually deserves being examined in detail.

First and foremost, it’s a blatant attempt at emotional manipulation. We all know what bullies are – they’re the insecure assholes in school who believe tearing others down makes themselves look better in comparison, and they seek whatever angle they can find to exploit. However, the teachers in the same schools aren’t being bullies when they mark answers wrong on a test, because they have a goal with criteria, primarily that the student obtains a certain level of knowledge. One is driven by insecurity, the other by functionality.

Which brings us to the distinction of criticism. Nobody likes hearing that they’re wrong, but it’s still the most valuable information we can receive – without it, we’d never try to find out what’s right, and in many cases, we’d continue to do something stupid, or damaging, or dangerous, or even fatal. Criticism is a social activity that not only shares information, it continually raises the standards of our species as a whole. Science as a pursuit runs on criticism, or to be more specific, the careful examination of where any hypothesis or conclusion might be wrong, because that’s the only way to find out what’s right. The whole process involves others nitpicking the hell out of any new ideas, and of course, the requirement to produce plentiful evidence that whatever is being proposed is solid. That means anyone even suggesting something new to science is being fatuous if they expect not to receive critical examination, and that’s putting it mildly.

True enough, in many other cases criticism is only an opinion, e.g., movie critics, but this bears a certain level of recognition as well, because movies are put out there for public entertainment, so the public is free to express whether or not they actually were entertained. And that brings us to the ‘free speech’ and opinion angles. Very frequently, you’ll find the woo-meisters whining that they’re entitled to their opinion, and people can believe what they want, as if this means no one is allowed to criticize them. Naturally, anyone else may express their opinion that the woo-meister is a sack of runny green infant diarrhea, and people can believe that if they want, too. It’s disturbing how many people seem to feel that their right to an opinion somehow disallows anyone else’s right to disagree. Not to mention that it’s not actually a right in any legal sense, and even free speech is limited by things that can cause direct harm.

But even more along these lines, we’re rarely ever talking about something as simple as opinion. The moment that anyone seeks money for their opinion, or their books, or their specialized treatments, or their magic rocks, we’ve gone beyond opinion to selling a product, or at least an idea, and to the greater public as well. Nobody doing so has any reason to believe they should be free from scrutiny, or that there’s some right to sell whatever the hell they want without someone else examining not just the claims, but the potential for damage as well, or even simply fraud. This is another place where the manipulative angle comes into play, because the targeted quack cries about being picked on, as if they are the only one who might come to harm, while most of the time, those doing the criticizing are motivated by the public welfare. Someone selling poison can blubber all they want, but the person who points out that it’s poison is hardly being a bully. And of course, who’s performing the best public service in that case? Does free speech and free enterprise really enter into it at all here?

Often, one can even see the conspiracy card getting played, where the snake-oil salesman is the lone hero crusading against the concerted forces of large corporations, the medical establishment, or the scientific hegemony, as if that’s the only reason why someone could possibly find fault with their grandiose claims. Long a favorite of the UFO crowd, the idea of the secret cabal that’s working to suppress information somehow works with too many people, apparently already inclined to believe in such things. Martyr complexes are incredibly popular. Less so, of course, is the con man, so the motivation to throw a different spin on it is pretty strong.

Anyone may point out that not only have I failed to prove their favorite folk hero is a fraud, all I’ve done here is name-calling, and the first thing I’ll do is direct them to a post on recognizing pseudoscience. And the second thing I’ll do is remind them that it’s not up to me to prove anyone’s wild claims wrong, it’s up to the claimant to prove that they’re right. While it’s somehow imperative that a skeptic should point out the myriad ways that pseudoscience claims fail, it’s much easier to have the simple requirement that they pass instead, rather than hiding behind possibilities and mysteries and, most frequently, the blatant misuse of scientific terminology.

But, let’s turn the tables a little bit. If you confront a child about why the dog is covered with doodles in permanent marker, and the child dodges the question, changes the subject, or screams about being hated, are they heroic, much less innocent? If you ask your auto mechanic why some expensive repair is necessary, and they shoot back that you can’t prove it’s not, do they deserve your business or respect? If you give a student a failing grade because they cannot calculate dewpoint accurately, and they claim they don’t deserve it because science doesn’t know everything, should you change their grade?

Answer carefully, because nobody wants to be a bully, now…

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