• Progress is a disputative process: the high cost of safe spaces

    Overheard during the description of a graduate seminar,

    We often make progress here by way of a disputative process…

    It made me smile. The professor was letting us know, in the careful words of experience, that doing science involves strenuous, if constructive, criticism. So buck up.

    It’s not merely the belief that mutual critical perspective helps you refine and enhance (or possibly scrap) your research designs. Eventually, you get subjected to peer review. Your big or small errors being found at that much later point are much more damaging and much harder, if not impossible, to fix because you’ve already done the work. Moreover, it’s far easier to take feedback from colleagues whom you know to respect you.

    Having been through the peer-review process, I report these virtues can not be overvalued. Good criticism and thoughtful analysis from those who have a different knowledge set, background or POV is invaluable among scientific researchers- and not just them. Antagonistic systems designed to harness competitive impulses bring out the best in almost every awesome human enterprise I can think of: the Olympics, attenuated capitalism that permits modernity, the antagonistic trial system of jurisprudence, and democracy itself. None of these are unflawed, but surely chief among the properties that makes them superior to alternative ways of doing things, is the human striving against other humans put to a positive good.

    So here’s the weird part: today we’re sure that antagonism is crap on a cracker. Maybe it’s just American society; I’m not sure. Consider these examples:





    Or, consider the low regard afforded to formal debate (whether academic, political or otherwise) and compare it to the noble stage set by Lincoln vs. Douglas. Authors like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens are regarded as mean, even while posing purely philosophical, scientific,  or sociological arguments.

    To be sure, argument can be pointless and worse. What passes for “debate” among political venues is a pale shadow of the standards politics once enjoyed. The anonymity of the internet reduced the cost for emotionally-compromised people to attack anyone or anything that makes them uncomfortable to almost zero. These bad apples are everywhere, and highly visible. It’s not wrong to note and condemn such instances; but some take it much further. I have noticed among some self-described progressivist groups on the internet that “safe space” policies are justified by the comparatively small but vocal group of malicious internet goblins.

    Astonishingly, “safe space” is now sometimes defined not as the proscription of malice or insult, but of “controversy”. All that is left to be permitted must echo a carefully defined catechism. Even this might be alright, except when the nominal purpose of the site is discussion of merit. This paints discourse with an enormously broad brush- as if all antagonistic exchanges are the same, whether random twitter insult from someone in desperate need for attention or thoughtful person who wants to add to the discussion positively. This strain of intellectual laziness is more common in American life than we wish to imagine. We’ve reasoned as a group that if colonial imperialism was justified by poorly-motivated judgments of cultural superiority, then judgment itself of any culture must be bad (instead of merely poor judgment), and be banned (resulting in post-modernist philosophy); we reasoned that if the Soviet Union’s economic system failed, then socialism as a mere idea (not merely an instance) must be fatally flawed.

    Let’s dispense with any such myopia. Competitive and antagonistic exchanges can be either atrocious or wonderful, and we must be prepared to carefully consider which is which and to promote one kind and not the other. To that end, I assert that an atmosphere and expectation of mutual respect and a focus on constructive dialog helps with the wheat-from-chaffing.

    So let me be clear: this website isn’t a “safe” space. Making progress, even intellectual progress, means taking risks and listening to other people with different values. I might be will be wrong some part of the time and sometimes that will hurt. You might feel embarrassed, should you venture to participate and get something wrong. This is the price of admission. But only if you like things like science to work.

    Category: Critical ThinkingFeatured Incskepticism

  • Article by: Edward Clint

    Ed Clint is an evolutionary psychologist, co-founder of Skeptic Ink, and USAF veteran.