November 28, 2012

Responding to False Claims

FALSE CLAIMSAs a teacher, I spend much of my time providing corrective feedback to students who make mistakes. This may involve something simple like helping them write a sentence so it more clearly expresses their thought, or it may involve something as complex as helping them challenge long-held but incorrect assumptions about the world. Responding to false statements with the goal of changing minds is a core part of what I must do in this role.

Since I started Atheist Revolution in 2005, one conflict that has haunted me more than any other has involved how (or if) to respond to the category of false claims that are made with the goal of manufacturing controversy or getting attention (e.g., the "war on Christmas," everything that comes out of Ann Coulter's mouth). As will be obvious to most readers, I have landed on the side of responding, sometimes with mockery when I believe it is warranted. Again and again, I have called out false claims. It would probably be accurate to say that I have written as many posts doing this here as any other type.

And yet, one thought has always been in the back of my mind as I have done so:
Am I making a mistake by calling attention to this? Am I falling for a form of troll-bait? Am I really just giving publicity to someone who does not deserve it? Instead of responding, should I be ignoring more of this stuff?
I have argued that some people in some contexts may have an obligation to challenge false claims. The journalist interviewing an elected official cannot let false claims slide. By doing so, he or she is failing to perform his or her job. But extending this argument to individual atheist bloggers may not be appropriate. I'm not sure it makes sense to suggest that you and I necessarily have any such obligation.

When a prominent public figure says something wrong and incredibly stupid, it can be helpful to respond. Doing so makes sure that at least some portion of the audience hears an alternative and that the statements do not go unchallenged. But what about the cases where the public figure seems to be making statements to provoke controversy and gain attention? In those cases, do we do more harm than good by responding? Would the stupid ideas be more likely to fade into obscurity if we did not help broadcast them? Would the individual who has made his or her career on being controversial fade into obscurity any faster if we ignored him or her?

Here's a recent example of Jessica (Friendly Atheist) responding to Fox "News" pundit Bill O'Reilly and his latest bit of atheist-bashing. I could have easily written this post. As long-time readers will know, I have written many posts much like this one. My rationale for doing so has been to call attention to them and provide a more reasonable alternative. And yet, I cannot help wondering whether responding might do as much harm as it does good. No matter how many years I have struggled with this question, I find myself no closer to having a satisfactory answer.

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