While I was offline for a month, I kept a note of any links and news stories worth commenting on. Now that I’m back, I’m aiming to post two short items a day here, about stuff that happened during my online absence, until I’ve cleared the backlog. This is one of those.
Skeptoid is a podcast by Brian Dunning, which seeks to provide a brief summary on the scientific state of affairs on a particular topic every week, coming in at about ten minutes each time. You should be listening to it. Recently, Brian ran an episode on DDT, the controversial insecticide.
Although the show always attracts its fair share of kooks, often complaining loudly about its obvious agenda to cover up some deep conspiracy about aliens or crystal skulls or whatnot, this episode got a fair bit of criticism from the rest of the skeptical crowd. Notably, the Skepchick blog and Orac were both disappointed with how Brian had gone off-track on this particular subject, and fallen for some bad science.
Brian responded to this criticism some time later, and was unconvinced by what he’d heard. The debate is ongoing, both in the comments to that blogpost and on the transcript of the Skeptoid episode itself.
Now, I’m a big fan of this podcast. I’ve learned a number of things from it, and Brian’s commitment to objectivity and in-depth research is generally evident. I didn’t think too much about the DDT episode at the time; it’s not something I’d given much study before, so I didn’t have the expertise to usefully assess his interpretation of the facts. If I was ever going to write about the subject myself, I’d do a little more digging, but at the time I wasn’t moved to take it any further.
I’m still not intending to weigh in and settle the whole argument here – these catch-up posts are meant to be brief and just get me back up to speed, for one thing, and it sounds like a hefty project.
What’s easier to notice is that Brian’s done over two hundred of these shows, and the reason it’s notable that the skeptical response has been largely weighted against him this time is that it’s pretty rare. He’s earned something of a reputation by now, and I’m willing to give him credit that, if and when he gets something wrong, it’s more likely to be down to an honest misunderstanding of the facts than a deliberate distortion motivated by some political bias. Some of the criticism against his DDT piece has taken this latter form, which I think is unnecessarily harsh.
Having said that, I think parts of Brian’s response also go way beyond what’s reasonable. At one point he describes himself as having suddenly ended up as “Science Enemy #1”. I can understand that he might have felt a bit shaken up, to have been abruptly set upon by several articles popping up so firmly set against him, but… Science Enemy #1? Really? Because some people opined “Hmm, usually he’s good but this was a rare cock-up”? That was enough to rocket him beyond the likes of Mike Adams, Joseph Mercola, Andrew Wakefield, Kent Hovind, and Oprah on the skeptosphere’s hit-list?
Also, one of the things he complains about is not having been personally contacted by anyone who saw any problems or factual errors in his reporting before they went ahead and blogged publicly about it themselves. I know this has no direct bearing on who’s been accurate and who’s been misleading on the facts about DDT, but it’s interesting to note the differing ideas about how this kind of online disagreement should go.
This kind of discussion often does take place in a public arena, through blog post responses and comment threads. This seems to me a significant part of how our online community is arranged; blogging openly about someone else lends itself much more easily to group discussion than a personal email, and can give people just as much chance to correct mistakes and resolve disputes.
It’s not clear from his blog post whether Brian actually did himself what he seems to think other people should have done, and privately contacted the other bloggers who criticised him before posting publicly about them. Judging by the scare quotes he still attaches to the pseudonymous “Bug Girl” (who wrote the Skepchick article), I’m guessing not.
I’ve started to just bitch unproductively about “tone” again, haven’t I? Shit, I was hoping not to do that so much any more.
Okay. I’m reading through the comments to Brian’s post again, and some of them are making me angry, but I know that if I try and write about this any more now then I’m just going to make people angry too, for exactly the same reason. And that won’t help anyone. Maybe I’ll come back to this later.