First, do no harm

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?’

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Published in: on July 21, 2010 at 9:56 pm  Comments (10)  
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  1. I think it’s entirely possible that we do not all have the same goals and motivations. Some of use may not be as interested in the awareness and education as others, even if we have convinced ourselves that we are.

    The impact of our actions is still a central question, but the strategy differs.

    I’m not questioning the motives of anyone in particular, but considering that question makes it a little easier to understand why some people oppose the ideas you’re promoting.

  2. “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?'”

    This is a huge problem. I’ve noticed a backlash from some regarding this issue. When questions are posed regarding the efficacy of many outreach efforts, people are quick to speak up and get defensive. To be told that we should spend less time talking about how to “do skepticism” and more time “doing skepticism” is, in my opinion, counterproductive. We need to look at ways to measure the outcome of our efforts, need to look at research that already exists regarding effective teaching practices, look closely at research related to belief, and, ultimately, expend our effort in a way that is effective. I realize that there is a tremendous amount of passion, and the motivation to do SOMETHING. It is certainly somewhat rewarding to feel as if one is doing something for a cause. But, why do it if the goal is not being met? Are we really “doing skepticism” if we aren’t asking those questions and trying to improve the delivery of our message?

  3. I completely agree. In fact, that was a key point in my ‘ridicule’ essay – there are various goals and various ideas on how to achieve them. Which is why it’s important to not dismiss any one method out of hand but apply the skeptical methodology to communication as one would to any other claim.

    That said, I do think there is something of a shared ‘ultimate’ goal amongst rationalists. It seems most desire a society where people don’t believe in things that can’t be supported by values of reason. It’s almost definitive of the grassroots movement and is reflected in every piece of communication. Whether it’s a blog ranting about why some form of nonsense is silly or dangerous or a conference talk about the psychology of belief, it grows out of a desire for some aspect of the community’s beliefs to be different.

    What does vary is whether this should be changed directly by selling people a new belief or indirectly by challenging their epistemology.

  4. If only the homoeopaths, chiropractors, anti-vaxers and faith healers out there gave any thought to this issue and the wider social implications of their actions. If they did there would be less need for the debunkers to debunk. Let’s face it, most rationalism is a response to a belief for which a social harm has been identified.

    As to the “simple” question – ‘What is the full impact of my actions?’ I would argue that it is hardly simple to perceive the full impact of any action. You do your best within your experience and understanding of the context and then you get on with it (or not), which is something that I think most rationalists do when working out what they’re going to say, how they’ll say it and why they’re saying it.

  5. “Let’s face it, most rationalism is a response to a belief for which a social harm has been identified.”

    I disagree. While there is of course potential for harm, I don’t think this is at the core of most of the hostility. There are ample topics in the general community in which effective education would reduce risk of harm or financial loss in, yet have far fewer critics than psychics, alternative medicines and religion. I suspect there is much more fueling the flames than just a fear of harm.

    Nonetheless, let’s presume you’re correct. You border on posing a tu quoque argument – ‘they’ don’t behave that way, so why should we? In the very least, I wasn’t referring to a risk of physical harm, but rather harm to achieving the goal through thoughtless communication.

    The question ‘What is the full impact of my actions?’ isn’t a complicated one at all. It might be difficult to answer, but the question itself is not at all hard to appreciate. Sure, sometimes we have to say ‘I don’t know’. But that’s not shouldn’t be the same as ‘I don’t care’. You might be more optimistic than I, but I think few very rationalists do ever pause to even consider their goals, let alone learn how to achieve them effectively.

  6. I don’t think there is much evidence to suggest that skeptics/rationalists/debunkers or whatever you wish to call/label them don’t consider the impact of their actions.

    Posts/tweets/discussions in real life like your own examining the role/techniques/aims of skepticism do afterall appear on an almost daily basis.

    Whilst some are “stuck in their ways” and can perhaps be accused of being uncritical of their approach or aims does this really apply to the majority?

    I tend to think not.

  7. You might be right – I should point out that I don’t have a survey to quantify the percentages. It might well feel that way to me on account of feedback I’ve encountered over the years when I’ve directly asked skeptics ‘what’s your goal and what are you using to gauge your success?’, or similar enquiries.

    The recent so-called ‘tone dispute’ has been a good example, where the justification of choice of communication by prominent rationalists on both sides of the fence has been more emotional than reasonable.

  8. “There are ample topics in the general community in which effective education would reduce risk of harm or financial loss in, yet have far fewer critics than psychics, alternative medicines and religion. I suspect there is much more fueling the flames than just a fear of harm.”

    Yes of course there is more than just a fear of harm – there is the fact that these topics are so ludicrous that they offend the rational mind AND they cause harm. That’s what provides the motivation to not just sit there and take the nonsense, but to speak out against it.

  9. Oops,I meant to add:
    “Nonetheless, let’s presume you’re correct. You border on posing a tu quoque argument – ‘they’ don’t behave that way, so why should we?”

    Rather, I’m saying that because they don’t behave that way, we have to in an effort to mitigate their impact.

    “I wasn’t referring to a risk of physical harm, but rather harm to achieving the goal through thoughtless communication.”

    Most of the sceptics and rationalists I know are very cautious and thoughtful about how they communicate, so I can’t say that I support your observation. There are a few who are more outspoken and emotional in their communication, but I don’t follow or interact with them and they appear to be in a small (albeit high profile) minority from my experience. I think you generalise too much.

  10. As I said earlier, that’s entirely possible, and won’t dismiss it. Given I’ve not dug too deeply beyond engaging in discussions like this or the occasional talk and interview, I can’t claim to have a balanced, non-biased view. But it did start with an assumption much like yours, many years ago, and slowly changed as I studied education and sci-com, and took what I’d learned and used it to inquire of fellow skeptics their goals and methods (albeit, it was hardly a randomised, blinded survey). The responses varied, but few could tell me what success would look like beyond an increase in output, i.e. more people listening to them. Not to say this is necessarily a bad thing…

    I might do a blog post in the future, however, about the difference between output and outcomes in communications, as I’m not sure I’d do it full justice here.

    Oh, and thanks for your responses. My disagreement is not a reflection of it not having made me think and consider my position, which it certainly has. 🙂


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