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About Those Angry Emails

What happens when your sense of identity is threatened by science?

“When an immovable fact meets an unstoppable feeling.” This is the title of a newsletter article from Liz Neeley, a science communicator who studied marine biology. In a mere eight words—which play on a 3rd-century text about a merchant selling a spear that can pierce any shield and a shield that blocks any spear—Neeley succinctly summarizes the central problem of debunking.

Her piece is not about debunking. It’s about losing fights in the environmental policy arena, about witnessing stupid people making bad choices, even about being in a relationship with a partner, but it absolutely applies to the challenging practice of putting someone’s dearly beloved belief under a microscope and looking at it through a cold, hard lens.

I have written about traditional Chinese medicine, multiple chemical sensitivity, the anti-vaccination movement—all topics that elicit in their believers very strong, emotional reactions. My immovable fact clashes against their unstoppable feeling: that they are being personally attacked.

I have received emails in which a reader, having read one of my articles, accuses me of writing something I did not write. Presumably, they read the title and maybe the first paragraph, and their brain sorted me into the “enemy” box and went on to attach all of the worst arguments ever produced by that side to my article, sight unseen. When I reply and ask them to quote the sentence in my article in which I said this odious thing, they often sheepishly answer that, upon rereading it, they realize they were wrong: I wrote no such thing. To their credit, they apologize and, I hope, will be a bit more open-minded next time they come across a dissenting opinion based on scientific facts.

I was recently criticized by a student who read my article on a paper allegedly proving that traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) had been scientific all along. She was raised with TCM and believes in it. She didn’t like my article and asked for its tone to be revisited. I reread it, expecting the worst. Had I gone on an acerbic bender while writing it? I did not find a single line denigrating TCM or mocking it, just careful statements of fact. I thought that enough care had come through in the writing, but clearly not enough for this student.

This is an issue I call “the hand-holding problem.” Articles can’t go on forever. If they could, I would have spent more time on the revisionist history at the heart of what we call TCM, and on the multiple papers describing the horrible liver toxicity of so many herbs used in TCM, and on acupuncture and the work that has been done to devise a placebo intervention that looks and feels like acupuncture without being acupuncture, and on the misconceptions many people have about the placebo effects (plural), and on the many cognitive biases that make traditional healing practices alluring and our own personal experience with them convincing. I would have written at length about my own personal interactions with alternative medicine practitioners and my own attempts at finding a solution to chronic pain. I would have listed many examples of the irrational beliefs I once had and grew out of, to show that I wasn’t born a robot and that my thinking evolved on many issues. I would have held my reader’s hand throughout to make sure they didn’t feel rushed and that their feelings were cared for every step of the way.

The kind of compassion I just described can be done in a one-on-one conversation which focuses on listening to the other person—their concerns, their anger, their experiences, their values—, and I would argue that it can also be achieved with a really good book (Trick or Treatment by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst comes to mind). But it’s really hard to accomplish in 2,000 words. It’s like every article I write is a chapter in a book building to a grand conclusion, and some people skip the buildup and get inflamed because chapter 306 feels rushed and insensitive to their beliefs.

I try very hard to infuse compassion into my writing, but it is a tremendous challenge to provide enough scientific analysis for the rational crowd that views Mr. Spock as an aspiration and enough empathy and personality for the reader who feels like their identity is being attacked. We all find ourselves at different points on our journey towards better thinking. As a teenager, I believed in cryptids, alien visitations, and the staging of the Apollo 11 moon photos on a soundstage here on Earth. It took years of studying science and being exposed to skepticism and critical thinking for me to come out of it on the other side with a clearer view of how the world works.

I don’t know how to end this particular essay, except to tip my hat to everyone who is having these difficult conversations with their friends and families and find that their facts meet a fount of unstoppable feelings. It takes time and patience to make headway in these conversations, when headway is even possible. Sometimes, the best thing to do, if you have the time, is simply to listen.


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