Sometimes you can’t sway people with research, or compassion, or generosity. Sometimes there are high-profile misinformation peddlers who need to be held accountable. In these cases, try shame.
I heard about this tactic a while back from Ben Goldacre, a British author, physician, and longtime slayer of bad science, when I talked to him about how he decides which quacks to take down in his writing. “Mocking people who misuse science is a really useful gimmick for communicating how science works,” he said.
Over the years, Goldacre has taken on everyone from sloppy journalists to pharmaceutical executives, vitamin proprietors, and disingenuous academics. He has illuminated the evidence, and lack thereof, behind detox foot baths, homeopathy, and ear candling. He once got his dead cat the same certificate as a famous British nutritionist just to demonstrate how bogus her credentials were.
Now a professor at the Oxford Center for Evidence-Based Medicine, Goldacre produces work that has changed policy about clinical trial transparency, among other areas of health.
But he doesn’t just go after cranks for the sake of it; he uses their stories to educate people about science. And he shames those in positions of power who give them the credibility to have an impact.
“Going after people who facilitate the cranks is more likely to produce long-term benefits and also more closely reflects where the true source for the problem lies,” he explained. “I can tell you who hates having their name in the paper, and that is journalists, editors, broadcasters, and policymakers. They are used to being able to hide in the shadows, anonymously, and if you can call them out by name, I think that changes their behavior quite well.”