“If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.”
I was recently and publicly called a “fat hater” on Facebook by someone I know. It was in response to an article I wrote for Discovery News about a rhyming children’s book for 4 to 8 year olds called Maddie Goes On a Diet. The article was about a controversy surrounding the book, in which an overweight 14-year-old girl loses weight and gains self-esteem through diet and exercise. Outraged critics were concerned that the book could harm children, and I interviewed one expert (and quoted another) who claimed the book was damaging. I also analyzed their criticisms, and pointed out several logical errors and mistaken assumptions that critics were making about the book (for example that the diet Maddie goes on is an unhealthy, calorie-restricted diet, and that the book was likely to have a significant influence on children or their diets).
I spent about half a day researching and writing the column, and the final product provided a much deeper level of analysis and critical thinking than most of the other news stories on the topic (do a Google search for the topic and see for yourself). Many Discovery News readers agreed with my analysis.
Yet others dismissed my piece—not because my facts or arguments were wrong, but because it was just another example of my well-known “fat hating” bias. My article could be safely ignored and dismissed (or perhaps not even read) because anything I wrote was clearly driven by an anti-fat ulterior agenda. I would have welcomed some substantive criticism or comments explaining where my logic or arguments were faulty, but none were offered.
This is, of course, a version of the logical fallacy of the ad hominem attack: Criticizing the person, not the argument or claim. We see it all the time in skepticism; it’s nothing new. But when a colleague and ostensible critical thinker does it, it’s disheartening.
I should confess that I have also been publicly accused of hating both gays and dwarves. No, I’m not making this up. Interestingly, as far as I know I’ve never been accused of hating (or bias against) Blacks, Jews, Asians, or Muslims. Then again, the week’s not over.
As it happens, I am not at all shy about identifying targets of my hatred; George W. Bush and psychics who exploit grieving families pretty much complete the list. If I hate you, I’ll make that perfectly clear; you won’t need to read between the lines. But gays, dwarves, and fat people (not to mention fat gay dwarves) are fine by me. The claim that I hate gays would surely come as a surprise to my many lifelong gay friends, including James Randi, to whom I dedicated one of my books. And the idea that I hate overweight people would also surely come as a shock to nearly all of my ex-girlfriends, few of whom are svelte.
A few years ago, I even lost a friend who refused to speak to me because I had written an article that included a discussion of false rape claims. She (apparently) badly misread the piece and somehow concluded that I was suggesting that real rapes don’t occur, or that real victims shouldn’t be believed. I of course wrote no such thing. On very rare occasions I’ve even heard the suggestion that I am somehow biased in favor of sex offenders (whatever that means) because I have written about the sex predator panic scares, explaining to parents that family and friends pose a far greater danger to children than any convicted sex offender. In fact a child is far more likely to be physically or sexually abused, abducted, or even killed by his or her parents than a sex offender stranger. This is a well-established statistical fact, and how that could be interpreted as a bias toward sex offenders is beyond me.
I am used to attacks and criticism; it comes with the territory. Any time you are challenging someone’s beliefs or claims, and especially when you do with references, sound arguments, and sources, people get upset. In my twelve years of doing skeptical investigations and science literacy work, I’ve been threatened with both violence and lawsuits (including from a New York Times reporter—involving a predator panic piece I wrote, in fact). I get hate mail of some sort nearly every week; I’m told that I’m stupid, willfully ignorant, and an embarrassment to journalism. Some people leave comments on Discovery News articles saying I should be fired. I think writing is the only profession where people who have read a few paragraphs of your work feel entitled to tell you what a horrible, incompetent person you are, and on a fairly regular basis.
I don’t mind the criticisms, it’s the bias accusations that annoy me, and it’s instructive to briefly analyze them. When I question claims about aliens and UFO photographs, critics assert that the only logical reason I would do so is because I have a bias or agenda as part of a government conspiracy to keep the truth from the public. When I question claims about alternative medicine and homeopathy, it’s not because I have researched it and know a lot about it, but because I’m being paid by Big Pharma. When I question claims made by psychics, critics say it’s because I have a bias toward protecting the scientific status quo—or that if I were to accept the reality of psychics it would devastate my worldview. And when I question claims about the links between media images and eating disorders, it can’t be because I know something about it—having studied it for years and written a book about the mass media—but because I hate fat people.
All of these folks have one thing in common: The assumption that the reason I’m criticizing their claims or arguments because 1) I haven’t done adequate research into the subject, and if I did, I’d realize that they were right; and 2) I have a hidden agenda, some bias or ulterior motive that compels me to write my ill-informed rubbish despite all the obvious evidence against my position.
Often the basic logic goes something like this: “You are saying something that’s different than what I heard (or believe), so you must be wrong.” It rarely seems to occur to them that maybe what they heard (or believe) might be wrong, and that the author who has spent hours (or days or years) researching it might know more about it. Truly open-minded people who are willing to listen and consider information and arguments that contradict their beliefs are discouragingly rare.
Many of these accusations of bias and hatred would of course not happen if I stuck to safe, non-controversial claims (among skeptics, anyway). If I restricted my critical analyses to UFOs or Bigfoot or psychic claims, I would only garner criticisms and attacks from the believers (and there’s plenty of those). My friends and fans, skeptics and otherwise, are happy to have me fight the good fight against woo, pseudoscience, and New Age bullshit day in and day out, month after month, year after year.
But some of them get very uncomfortable when I write and discuss topics that touch a nerve, especially issues about gender or sexuality (religion, as you might expect, isn’t really a point of contention among this crowd). Things get a little awkward when I question whether or not, for example, the “It Gets Better” anti-bullying campaign actually had any effect, or whether the “epidemic” of gay teen suicides last year was real. Things get a little awkward when I question whether sex offender notification laws are useful, whether false rape claims are a problem, or whether fashion models and a rhyming kid’s book actually lead to anorexia.
I apply my skepticism across the board, asking for evidence behind any and all claims. I don’t like it when people whose ideas and policies I oppose lie and repeat false statements to make their points, and I don’t like it when people whose ideas and policies I agree with lie and repeat false statements to make their points. I try hard not to be selectively skeptical. I believe that there should be no sacred cows, no taboo topics.
I will continue to write about body image and sex offenders and bad statistics and faulty arguments wherever I encounter them. I will endure the barbs and personal attacks, because I believe that these things should be openly discussed, and the arguments, pro and con, should be carefully analyzed instead of ignored or dismissed because of some perceived bias. Truth is best served when everyone asks, “What is the evidence?” not only for claims and ideas they oppose, but also for those they support. The principles of free speech are not tested by popular speech, but by unpopular speech. In the same vein, the true nature of open and skeptical inquiry is not tested when a person says something we agree with, but in how we react when a person says something we disagree with.