Noted grouchy person John Horgan has found a new way to get people mad at him on the Internet, via a speech-turned-blog-post taking organized Skeptic groups to task for mostly going after “soft targets”. This has generated lots of angry blog posts in response, and a far greater number of people sighing heavily and saying “There Horgan goes again…”
If you want to read only one counter to Horgan’s piece to get caught up, you could do a lot worse than reading Daniel Loxton’s calm and measured response. Loxton correctly notes that Horgan’s comments are nothing especially unique, just a variant of an argument that you find everywhere:
I’ve spent much of my career confronting the common argument that skeptics should not perform the service skeptics do best, but instead tackle other subjects we may not be qualified to address. It’s a head scratcher, honestly. “You have specialized expertise in X, but I think X is trivial. Why don’t you specialize in Y, because I think Y is important?” Nobody ever says this to Shakespeare scholars or doctors or plumbers. (“Dear ‘fire fighters,’ fight fires less and solve more murders”?) Seemingly everyone says it to skeptics.
There are only two minor points where I disagree with Loxton. One is the claim that this is primarily deployed only against skeptics, because the general tactic is everywhere. I get occasional comments and emails of the form “Why are you wasting time writing about arcane quantum physics when climate change is so much more important?” The endless arguments defending “the humanities” in academia are another version of the same basic thing– “Why should students study English lit when computer coding is so much more important?” And there’s even a sense in which much of the Democratic primary campaign has been dominated by this sort of thing– the arguments between Bernie Sanders supporters and Black Lives Matter activists, for example, basically boil down to each side thinking that the other is too focused on an issue that is not as important as their own primary concern.
So, skeptics have a lot of company in fending off “Your issue is trivial, you should spend more time on what I find most important.”
The other tiny disagreement I have is that I would slightly expand the qualifications justifying a decision to work on X rather than Y. That is, I don’t think it’s just a matter of specialized knowledge, but also a question of temperament. I don’t spend a whole lot of time battling quantum kookery– a rich source of targets both hard and soft– not because I lack specialized knowledge, but because I don’t have the right sort of personality to be good at it.
It’s not that I’m not bothered by charlatans trying to profit from misrepresentations of physics– on the contrary, I’m a little too bothered by it. I do occasionally write about this sort of thing, but it’s very difficult for me to do it without becoming snide. It’s sort of cathartic to vent about on occasion, but mostly not particularly productive– when I go back to stuff that I write in that mode, I generally don’t like the way I sound.
And it’s absolutely not in any way sustainable for me. One of the most notable thing about the skeptical fight is that it’s neverending. No debunking of Bigfoot, or Ancient Aliens, or quantum crackpottery is ever definitive– the folks on the other side always come back for more. There are two ways to deal with this: you either draw from a bottomless well of righteous indignation, a la Orac, or have a similarly deep reservoir of patience, as Loxton seems to.
I can’t really do either of those. I can be patient long enough to give a reasonably gracious reply to the nutty questions I get after public lectures, but that’s exhausted pretty quickly. And while I can get angry about this stuff at times, I can’t keep it up long enough to sustain me through the fifteenth round of the same stupid shit. I burn out, and that leads nowhere good.
Don’t get me wrong– I’m not saying this to disparage Loxton or Orac or any of the other folks out there fighting the good fight. What they do is good and valuable, and I’m glad they’re doing it. I’m also glad that I don’t have to do it, because I just don’t have the temperament.
But in the end, that’s the fundamental problem with Horgan’s provocation, and the similar arguments deployed by advocates of every Cause Y confronted with people who work on Issue X. It’s not necessarily the case that someone who does good work on X will be well suited to help with Y. There’s specialized knowledge involved in any of these issues, but also questions of personality and inclination. I’d do a lousy job of fighting kooks even within my field of expertise, let alone some other kind of “more important” political activism, because I don’t have the personality for it.
At bottom, this is just the classic problem of specialization and division of labor in economics. Different people are good at different things, and making people do things they’re not suited to will get you sub-optimal results. The best course is to have everyone work on the things they’re good at: Orac does rage, Loxton does patience, I do “Hey, isn’t quantum physics cool?” And Horgan pokes anthills with sticks.
This can be really hard to remember, especially when you’re passionately attached to a particular thing. God knows, I do my share of grumbling about the overemphasis on particle physics and lack of attention for atomic and condensed-matter physics. But it’s important to try to maintain perspective and recognize that just because you think Y is the most important thing in the world doesn’t mean that the world would be improved by making people who are good at X work on Y instead.