Snake Oil, Skepticism, and the End of Discourse

There must be something going on in the hive-mind that is the internet.  I’ve run across a half dozen references to skepticism in the past half hour.  All of which reminded me of something I wrote a while back.

It’s not any easy thing to be a skeptic.  It’s quite common for someone to express skepticism about something new, and then find themselves in a hailstorm of irate responses along the lines of:  “Oh, they’re just hidebound old fogies who can’t accept innovations or new ideas.”   Maybe, though, there’s a reason they are skeptics.  Maybe they are all for innovation, but are simply asking the right questions because they are just a little better and faster at analysis than the average bear.

People like new ideas (or even old ideas that have been dressed up in bright new clothes).  There is always that hope that there is that magic solution, that the “next great and wonderful thing” will actually live up to it’s promise and transform the world, or at least the workplace.

So “New” sells.  It sells books and products, it generates prestige…  And those who are clever enough to say “yeah, this is great in concept, but how are you going to handle…?”  tend to be dismissed as too old fashioned or resistant to change simply because it is human nature to want that new solution to be perfect; we like the fantasy (or cling to the hope) that somewhere there is a ‘silver bullet’ solution.

This is a big problem, because it removes the opportunity to address those potential pitfalls at an early point of adoption, often preventing bigger issues downstream.  We’ve all seen the “next great thing” fail to live up to it’s promise in the workplace, in education, in technology. And some of those failed initiatives need not have failed, perhaps would not have failed, had both the proponents and the skeptics sorted through issues at the front end instead of writing each other off as unrealistically naive and cynical respectively.

All of which begs the question: When did phrases like “Can you give me some data?”, “How does this really work”, or “There are some issues that need to be addressed”, start being heard as wholesale rejection of an idea?  When did human minds become so narrow (or egos so fragile to criticism) that the standard response is that anything but absolute acceptance is deemed as condemnation?

It points to a larger problem – the end of discourse.

Fingers could be pointed a lot of ways in this.

Educational systems that purport that they want students to “learn how to learn” but don’t teach them logic or rhetoric or any of those other old fashioned topics that allow for examination and conversation around all angles of a situation?

The business world, where the model has shifted from building businesses that will last and thrive for years to come, to merely seeking to make the best possible numbers for this quarter.  In this situation people want a quick win; there is no time for, and no interest in, real long-term viable solutions.  This model is not only systematically starving and killing off the flock of geese that lay the golden eggs, it also effectively puts employees in a perpetually defensive posture where opposing views or mention of flaws are viewed as threats to one’s career.

Regardless the origins, this is a problem that needs to be addressed because it is bigger than “Is [insert innovation here] good or bad or neutral?”   If we can’t ask real questions, it’s going to be pretty tough to distinguish between “snake oil” and a good idea that needs refinement.  A lot of good ideas are going to get lost in the shuffle if there is not room to ask the hard questions that will take those ideas beyond the initial burst of enthusiasm to a point where they can reach their full potential.

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