Irrational bigotry should receive moral condemnation. However, it is even more vital to subject these terrible ideas to critical scrutiny. Neglecting detailed skeptical refutations for the benefit of emotional outrage (however morally justified or psychologically understandable) can have substantial negative consequences.
This post will survey several of the negative consequences with preferring emotional outbursts to skeptical scrutiny: the reinforcement of the false belief that people promoting irrational bigotry are being oppressed, letting irrational bigotry stand unopposed by rational arguments and scientific evidence, promoting the harmful stereotype that skeptics are emotional and hysterical or cannot stick to the facts and the dangerous precedent that fundamentalists or ideologues can make misguided appeals to “being offended”.
This post will also critically examine the misunderstandings harbored by the writer and blogger Greta Christina in a recent post on the role of emotional outbursts in scientific skepticism. This includes the idea that scientific skepticism proceeds from a state of zero knowledge, that it requires mutual Socratic dialogue, or that it is somehow about treating all ideas as “neutral”, when this would in fact be false balance. It will also provide a detailed example of how to annihilate irrational bigotry with rationality and evidence and how to use controlled moral condemnation without succumbing to excessive personal attacks or emotional outbursts. Finally, this post will go over what the positions outlined in this text does not mean.
Why is a preference for emotional outbursts over skeptical debunking a very bad idea?
There are substantial downsides with posting emotional outbursts (however justified they might be morally) while downplaying a fact-based debunking:
(1) it will reinforce their false belief that the person promoting irrational bigotry are being oppressed.
(2) it will reinforce the same false belief among other supports of such irrational bigotry and this is likely a major reason for why these kinds of movements grow: it is the perfect storm between anti-establishment ideology and rooting for the perceived underdog. For instance, a lot of anti-immigration political parties in Europe ride on this kind of wave and they have been very successful in exploiting this sentiment.
(3) it will reinforce the view that there is no reasonable scientific response to such irrational bigotry, since all they got was an emotional outburst and no substantive refutations.
(4) it will let irrational bigotry stand unopposed so that future fence-sitters will not benefit from reading a skeptical debunking.
(5) it will reinforce and feed into the flawed stereotype that skeptics and proponents of social justice are “emotional” or “hysterical” and that they cannot be reasonable or cannot stick to the facts.
(6) the knowledge gained from reading the skeptical debunking will not spread to other skeptical or social justice allies, knowledge which they could have used in their fights against irrational bigotry elsewhere.
(7) it sets a potentially dangerous precedent that you can dominate a discussion about important topics by making emotional outbursts and thereby shutting it down completely under the disguise of misguided appeals to not wanting to cause offense. It should not concern us that e. g. religious fundamentalists or political ideologues feel “persecuted” or “offended” by a skeptical examination of their stances.
It is not clear that the benefits of downplaying or sacrificing skeptical criticisms for emotional outbursts outweighs these costs.
Skeptical debunking as a third way
Let’s imagine that someone shows up at your dinner party, or comes into your online forum, and says that husbands should be allowed to beat and rape their wives. Or that homosexuality is a serious and dangerous mental illness, and gay people should be locked up in mental institutions. Or that black people aren’t fully human.
How are you going to respond? Are you going to say, “Hm, that’s an interesting idea — I don’t agree, but I’m curious why you think that, let’s calmly look at the evidence and examine the pros and cons”?
Or are you going to say some version of, “That is vile. That is despicable. The fact that you’re even proposing that is morally repulsive. Apologize, or get the hell out”?
Here Christina performs a fallacy called false dichotomy. This occurs when a person presents the situation as if there were only two mutually exclusive options. In this case, the two options presented here — a sympathetic and unfiltered open-mindedness starting from a position of zero knowledge versus an emotional outburst — are not the only options. There is a third option: debunking of irrational bigotry with reason and evidence. This can be done without even interacting with the person promoting these positions. The goal would then not to convince such a person, but to associate his or her false statements with science-based information.
The central flaw in the narrative above is that scientific skepticism does not, and should not, start from a position of zero knowledge (especially for bigoted claims that have been refuted a thousand times before). There is also nothing that says that scientific skepticism has to be based on Socratic dialog (or even any kind of mutual dialog) or that irrational bigotry has to be labeled “interesting”, that it should be treated “a serious idea that’s worthy of debate” or that scientific skepticism is about treating all ideas as if they were “neutral” (that would be false balance, a common denialist tactic incompatible with scientific skepticism). These are substantial and fundamental misunderstandings of the nature of scientific skepticism held by Christina.
I also doubt that you can get a person promoting irrational bigotry to apologize. Such an attempt is probably pretty futile. This accusation might also be leveled against a skeptical debunking, but remember that the aim is not to convince the true believer (i.e. the person who strongly believes in irrational bigotry).
How to skeptically debunk irrational bigotry with reason and science
Let us look at an example. Assume that a person promoting irrational bigotry would falsely claim that “homosexuality is a serious and dangerous mental illness”, level the unjustified conclusion that “gay people should be locked up in mental institutions” and let us even make this person deliver the false assertion that “they removed homosexuality from the DSM was because they fell to pressure from politically correct radicals and voted it out by sheer willpower”.
Here is what a brief skeptical debunking could look like (the other cases listed by Christina can be handled in a similar way):
The evidence favors a rejection of the notion that homosexuality is somehow a “serious and dangerous mental illness”.
This is because it is not part of the current DSM or ICD diagnostic manuals (American Psychiatric Association, 2013; World Health Organization, 1992), it is not recognized by any mainstream psychiatric organization as a mental illness and there is no substantial scientific evidence that supports that claim (American Psychological Association, 2015). In fact, early studies by e. g. Hooker (1957) and unpublished military research reviewed in Bérubé (1990) showed that gay people were just as psychologically adjusted as their straight counterparts. Furthermore, the psychiatrists who advocated this idea did not use representative samples (they primarily looked at gay people already under psychiatric care) and their analyses were not blinded. This means that their statistical inference was invalid and that they had no reliable method of removing their own biases when interpreting their data.
This was also the basis for why homosexuality is no longer in the DSM and not considered a mental illness by mainstream psychiatry. It was not simple a “vote” that came about through the “pressure from politically correct radicals.”
Finally, even if someone had a “serious and dangerous mental illness” this alone does not justify locking them up in a mental institution. This is because there are often additional legal criteria for involuntary psychiatric treatment in many countries and because other treatment options are often preferable. For instance, Sweden requires three criteria for involuntary psychiatric commitment: (1) serious psychiatric disorder, (2) involuntary psychiatric commitment is the only form of care that can meet the needs of the patient and (3) the patient refuses or is incapable to consenting to voluntary care (Swedish Parliament, 1991).
This means that all of your claims have been shown to be empirically false or based on an incorrect inference form the facts. Your position is totally without any rational or scientific merit. Furthermore, it is morally vile because it attempts to portray gay people as deranged and dangerous (when they are not) and direct more personal and societal oppression towards an already vulnerable and exposed group. This kind of irrational bigotry should figuratively burn in a thousand hells.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing
American Psychological Association (2015). Sexual Orientation & Homosexuality Answers to Your Questions For a Better Understanding. Accessed: 2015-09-26.
Bérubé, A. (1990). Coming out under fire: The history of gay men and women in World War II. New York: Free Press
Hooker, E. (1957). The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual. Journal of Projective Techniques, 21(1), 18-31.
Swedish Parliament. (1991). Lag (1991:1128) om psykiatrisk tvångsvård. Accessed: 2015-09-26.
World Health Organization. (1992). The ICD-10 classification of mental and behavioral disorders: Clinical descriptions and diagnostic guidelines. Geneva: World Health Organization.
This is, in my opinion, a considerably more forceful evisceration, both skeptically and morally, than the one proposed by Christina.
Why and how skeptical debunking can be united with moral condemnation
After a thorough skeptical debunking, it is perfectly acceptable in my book to issue some form of moral condemnation without excessive personal attacks (see above). The general idea is to emphasize that the bigoted claims are false because of reasoned arguments and scientific evidence, and that, in addition to this, the position expressed is morally vile without letting unproductive personal attacks take over. If it starts to feel exhausting to disprove the same irrational bigotry over and over again, make it into a FAQ post, or keep the refutation in a text document and copy/paste it everything the claims are being made or get a macro-based text-replacement software so that every time you type “refutingantigaybigotry” (or something similar), the program will replace it with the above refutation. Then you can combat such nonsense more or less at the same speed it is posted, thereby giving “it takes considerably more time to refute a nonsense claim than it takes to make it” a run for its money.
What this is not (read this before responding!)
This does not in any shape or form constitute a blanket ban on emotional outbursts or moral condemnation. This does not mean that people should coddle irrational bigotry. This does not mean that people who are not interested in making a skeptical debunking piece should be banned from only making moral condemnations. It is also not a ban on underprivileged people sharing their stories or having genuine emotional reactions to bigotry that they have faced for a very, very long time. It is also not a desire for skeptics to be psychopathic and emotionless robots. The alleged choice between “emotionless robot” and “emotional outbursts” is a false one.
This is not even necessarily a request for people to “remain calm”. Refutations of a similar complexity to the one written above can advantageously be written in a state of agitation or even seething rage. But kept in control and harnessed for maximum effect.
By all means, have emotional outbursts or make moral condemnations when you think they are justified. But do not for a second mistake this for high-octane scientific skepticism. If you do want to promote scientific skepticism, you have to put in the required effort and broadcast the skeptical debunking as well on top of that.