In chewing through my weekly readings for my current medical anthropology studies, I came across a paper which explores four social theories of global health. The first one was described as;
…the unintended consequences of purposive (or social) action. Introduced by the sociologist Robert Merton, this theory holds that all social interventions have unintended consequences, some of which can be foreseen and prevented, whereas others cannot be predicted. Therefore all social action needs to be routinely evaluated for unintended consequences that might lead to the modification of programmes, and even, if the consequences are serious enough, their termination. This theory would seem to be the social science equivalent of medicine’s ‘first, do no harm’, but it goes well beyond that ancient saw to reason that every action can have unintended and often harmful consequences of programmes…(Kleinman, A. (2010), The art of medicine: Four social theories for social health, The Lancet 375: 1518-1519)
It struck me how relevant this was not just to global health but to any social engagement, especially that of the the contemporary rationalist surge.
Communication of rational thought by grassroots communities appears to be a rather ad-hoc affair, reasoned by assertions that it takes all manner of styles to educate people and anecdotal evidence of what worked for them (so must surely work for others too!). On occasions that I’ve addressed this vague, almost whimsical method of outreach, I’ve been met with explanations of how grassroots communities consist primarily of volunteers and amateurs with limited time and resources and little professional support. Which is true, of course.
Yet these same individuals demonstrate boundless passion in their production of volumes of research on all manner of paranormal and pseudoscientific debunking. There are countless pages of words pumped out daily by a veritable army of bloggers who devote enormous man hours of reading and writing in the name of making the public ‘aware’ of what they perceive to be nonsense. This army consists of a community rich with academics, teachers, physicians, engineers and researchers who all have years of experience in doing their homework and solving problems.
It’s possible, of course, that communication is simply not regarded as a problem to be solved. Which is unfortunate. Given the drive so many rationalists have in wanting to promote ‘awareness’ and ‘educate the community’, it would be a shame if all of that passion was bottlenecked by a myopic refusal to pause and consider this simple question – ‘What is the full impact of my actions?’