Vlog 24: Tone Policing | The Body of Evidence

Vlog 24: Tone Policing


Refuting the same arguments over and over again can lead people like me to sound aggressive or dismissive sometimes. And that's when the tone police comes out to hand out tickets. What are the implications?


Transcript below:

Hey, this is Jonathan from The Body of Evidence.

Do you sometimes wish science communicators who tackle controversial topics would just stick to the facts and stop being so judgmental?

If you do, you're not alone.

What prompted this video was a couple of tweets, although I've seen this type of exchange many times before.

Health law professor and critical science communicator Timothy Caulfield tweeted the following: "Nope! '4 science-backed health benefits of eating organic'. Sorry, NO clinical evidence to support." And he included a link to an article on Time.com with the quoted title.

Replying to this tweet, Matt Hodgkinson wrote, "As a response to a carefully written article citing multiple scientific studies, 'nope' is pretty crass."

On its surface, this is an example of tone policing. RationalWiki defines 'tone policing' as "a logical fallacy that occurs when an argument is dismissed or accepted on its presentation: typically perceived crassness, hysteria or anger."

This is part of a larger trend. A member of the public encounters a science communicator who has been in the trenches for a while and is losing patience with a particular bit of pseudoscience, and the lay person says, "Hey, that wasn't very nice! I'd listen to you more if you just stuck to the facts. Why do you have to be so dismissive? Be open-minded!"

There's generally a disconnect between the lay person and the communicator. The first has just encountered the topic for the first time and is genuinely curious about it; the communicator has been fighting misinformation on this topic for years and is sick and tired of refuting the same arguments and bad scientific papers over and over again. So, one day, he or she lets the mask of objectivity slip a bit and reveals their humanity. The 140-character limit on Twitter and other restrictions of social media certainly don't help.

The consequence is that, as communicators, we may end up slowly building an echo chamber around ourselves, so that the people who follow us on social media already agree with us and share our grievances, while many of the people in the middle simply can't stand our tone. And that's really unfortunate.

But... we're not robots. I've only been tackling the issues for a few years and I can see how, after 15 or 20 years, my jadedness and frustration might come to the surface more regularly.

I suspect this phenomenon only affects what I've called "critical science communicators", and not the flag-wavers who prefer to talk about how awesome science is. Being critical means refuting bad studies and lousy arguments. When you see the same debunked study being shoved under your nose for the seventh time, it's easy to lose patience with it. What's really hard is to act as if you are seeing this study for the first time.

By the way, I don't think Tim Caulfield was out of line with his tweet, and I've seen responses that were actually crass coming from science communicators on other topics (just check out P.Z. Myers' blog for daily examples). But I also see why someone who isn't familiar with the debate over organic food and who is genuinely curious might perceive this tweet as counterproductive.

In case you're wondering, I don't have an answer to this problem. I think people like me need to be aware of this and refrain, whenever possible, from venting our frustrations publicly. I think the public also needs to be aware that fighting this particular battle is a lot like Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise: while we get better at it through pattern recognition, it can wear us down.

But we can't force the public to accept this fact or even to be aware of it.

In the meantime, I've got this slim brick to get through and I'm hoping that the science of science communication can better inform how I present facts so as to minimize the kinds of altercations that lead to people tuning off of science criticism. But I will slip... a lot. That, I'm afraid, is just part of the job.