SciencePunk

So you might have seen that Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced doctor who first linked the MMR vaccine to autism, has been given a “Golden Duck”  award for “lifetime achievement in quackery”.  The tweet that accompanied it in my feed asked simply “what is the purpose of this award?”, and I had to scratch my head too.  Just what is the point?   I don’t really gel with the concept of the award itself, for a variety of reasons. Most obviously, it encapsulates the kind of negative behaviour within the skeptic movement that I’ve taken issue with in the past. It’s far too easy for something like this to come across as sneering and contemptuous, and who knows, perhaps it is. This kind action stigmatises the expression  of alternative views. That’s never good foundation for a dialogue.  But more importantly, I think you need to be in a position of strength or power if this kind of moral criticism is to have any effect. For niche organisations without that kind of clout, such criticism is pointless unless you have the respect of your opponent, and that won’t be achieved if your opening gambit is ridicule. Sure, you can get a small amount of coverage in a sympathetic paper, but there’s a lot of audience overlap. When I worked at Sense About Science, the organisation ran an annual name-and-shame list of celebritieswho’d sinned against science in some way or another – extolling miracle diets or dismissing the reality of climate change. But nobody expected the A-listers to take any notice of these missives – they were simply a way of securing a bit of easy newspaper space in the slow news week between Christmas and New Year and help maintain the profile of the organisation.

I’m also confused by comments in the article that 2013’s award will focus on politics. There’s a bit of disjoint between encouraging changes on a year-to-year basis and the notion of a lifetime achievement award.  Assuming they cared, what advantage is there in an MP mending their ways after they’ve been given such an award?  The mark is indelible.
Underneath it all, I feel the skeptics are stuck in some kind of late 2000s battle re-enactment, vanquishing the same dragons over and over again. The same names come up again and again, on both sides, without much of a sense of progression. Can there be many people left on Earth who don’t think Wakefield is a quack, who would be convinced otherwise by insults like these? Wakefield has been struck off by the General Medical Council and has abandoned the UK with his reputation in shreds. I think this attack focuses too much on unnecessarily grinding those shreds to dust instead of repairing the damage that he’s done. What I’d really like to see is more attention paid to the ecosystem that allows this kinds of quackery to thrive and encouraging efforts made to remediate it – not just by feeding people more information, but by striving to understand individual health concerns and finding positive ways to address them.
EDIT: I should have pointed out that the golden duck award is the brainchild of the Good Thinking Society with votes coming from some SiTP groups. I’ve made the error above of blithely lumping skeptics into a single group, which is the one thing that really pisses them off.  It is a valid point though, and I’d recommend reading ghosthunter Hayley Stevens’ comments on the award for the view from the inside.

Comments

  1. #1 Hayley Stevens
    United Kingdom
    December 27, 2012

    “I feel the skeptics are stuck in some kind of late 2000s battle re-enactment, vanquishing the same dragons over and over again.”

    Surely that should read ‘some skeptics’?

  2. #2 gimpy
    December 27, 2012

    Frank, you’re right.

    But, I think you’ve overstated what this is. It was an odd choice for a new award that, frankly, nobody, other than those involved knows much about nor I suspect cares.

    Perhaps it, like those Sense About Science lists (which were equally unhelpful), it’s simply an opportunity for promotion for later benefits.

    How about nominating your own anti-quackery award for issues you feel are ignored in the media?

    Me, I’d shortlist Michael Gove for his support of Steiner schools, Prince Charles for his continued undemocratic meddling in politics to promote his own eccentric passions, and the various cancer charities who fund raise to send terminally ill children for useless treatment abroad.

  3. #3 Tessa K
    London
    December 27, 2012

    I’d rather see awards going to ordinary people (ie not high-profile campaigners and spokespeople) who promote good thinking and try to educate people. Much harder to source them but it would be the equivalent of lollipop ladies getting OBEs – people who work in their communities or in local groups to make a change.

    And I agree with Hayley that you should have said ‘some skeptics’. We’re not a homogenous mass.

  4. #4 Todd I. Stark
    Philadelphia, Pa. USA
    December 28, 2012

    I’ve been on the periphery of various communities that considers themselves skeptics for a long time, and my perception is that there have always been a few different flavors of skeptic identity.

    At the very least I feel as if there are the most rationalist skeptics, who consider their priority to be correction of fallacies and application of strict demarcation criteria to root out bad science, quasi-science, or non-science posing as science, along with various extraordinary claims of individual events that seem to capture people’s attention. For those folks, I think, science has one clear method and people either do it right or they don’t. For them the ridicule and debunking treatments are a primary political tool and a central purpose for their activities as well as a form of entertaining information dispersal. Creating awards for bad science seems to both reflect and to commit people to this sort of thinking, in addition to just being entertainment.

    I think there’s at least one other flavor that holds to a less thoroughly rationalistic take on science and focuses more on claims of extraordinary events that can be investigated with forensic tools and non-science posing as science. They are less temptted to use debunking and ridicule as primary political tools, they are more motivated to attempt interactive dialog with people whose claims they are investigating and researchers whose work seems at first extraordinary. They are more likely I think to take a longer term process view of science rather than a strict demarcation view, and they consider detached inquiry central to both science and skepticism, rather than considering advocacy of current good well-accepted science to be particularly central to skepticism.

    If the latter flavor of skepticism is real, I personally want to be associated with it. If that flavor is mostly just in my imagination, or wishful thinking, and the prototype of the contemporary skeptic is the thoroughgoing rationalist of the first flavor, then I would pass on it. I think that form of “critical thinking” by attacking things that are weak has real value but it is a much more superficial activity I think relative to the growth of objective knowledge. It is more a matter of protecting the unware from silly things than refining our knowledge in any deep way the way I would like to think the best skeptical thinkers can contribute.

  5. #5 David Colquhoun
    London
    December 28, 2012

    I agree that Wakefield was not a good choice because that is a battle that had already been won.

    Apart from that, though, I think you are quite wrong. Skeptical people (a very broad group, not a movement) have made a real difference in the outside world, Degrees in various forms of quackery have halved in number over the last five years. Even celebrity endorsements seem to be on the wane and Sense about Science can take some of the credit for that http://www.senseaboutscience.org/resources.php/111/2012-celebrities-and-science

    These victories have been won by activists, not by “accommodationists”. I don’t know if you have ever tried to have a rational conversation with a homeopath or reiki person, I have tried, but you start off with different assumptions and get nowhere at all. Neither is it much use talking to vice-chancellors or politicians who support them (they mostly simply refuse to enter a dialogue, with a single exception http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2881 ).

    The sad fact of the matter is that public ridicule seems to be the only thing that works. I suspect that with your approach we’d have got precisely nowhere.

  6. #6 Jose
    December 28, 2012

    Most people haven’t heard of Wakefield, although they have heard mention of vaccine conspiracies so I think your point about overkill is only true amongst people who read science blogs. Mind you people who don’t read science blogs (or follow on Twitter) won’t hear about the award either.

    Sometimes ridicule is important, especially when dealing with highly disingenous fundamentalists. You can try debating them on an equal footing but they’ll tar you with a barrage of lies and half truths. You’re not going to change their mind and you’re elevating their arguments in the eyes of low information people on the sidelines by treating them as reasonable people. Sometimes ridicule and marginalization are appropriate.

  7. #7 Frank Swain
    December 28, 2012

    Cheers David – good to hear your thoughts on this. Definitely there’s been a decline in the amount of nonsense in papers and on TV. Ditto university courses – but then, haven’t science courses been in decline too? Tricky to lace up the correlation.

    I agree that ridicule can be an effective tool – but with an important caveat. I think it’s important to ridicule ideas, not people. I don’t think any of us arrived at our view on alternative medicines because we were ridiculed into them. At the end of day, approach is up to the people involved, and the world’s better for a variety of them, for sure. Pragmatically, I understand that all efforts in whatever venture should seek to take the most effective route, but at the same time, personally, I want to be positive in what I do. As Vonnegut put it – God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.

  8. [...] “I feel the skeptics are stuck in some kind of late 2000s battle re-enactment, vanquishing the same dragons over and over again.” – Frank Swain on the “Golden Duck award for quackery” [...]

  9. #9 Holiday Rental Lorgues
    <a href="http://www.holidayrentallorgues.com">Lorgues</a>
    May 18, 2013

    I think it’s a great idea showing up the crazies for what they are.

    “If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, you need to stop doing it. You aren’t living your truth.”John Hope Bryant, Founder, Chairman and CEO Operation HOPE