MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Politeness means showing consideration for others and observing accepted social rules. Those who know me personally would probably confirm that I am a fairly polite person. And I had always hoped that politeness might also become a feature of how all of us deal with each other on this blog. Sadly this has not proven to be so.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to say that I am blameless. Firstly I see all the comments before they get posted, and secondly I too have been rather the opposite of polite at times. How come?

My excuse is that I too often let myself get carried away. From my perspective, the typical exchange ending in impoliteness develops as follows:

  1. My post is formulated such that it provokes some strong reaction. I know, I do this all the time, and I cannot promise that I will not do it in the future. This is because I believe – and experience tells me that I am correct – that one has to provoke in order to get some reaction.
  2. The person I provoked posts a comment that challenges me or someone else to respond. The nature of the comment is often such that it comes close to a personal attack. For instance, someone might state that I was fired from my Exeter post, that I am paid by the pharmaceutical industry, that I don’t know my subject, etc.
  3. Often, I do not respond at all to this sort of thing. But sometimes I conclude that facts need to be corrected, and regrettably, I correct them with more provocation.
  4. This then gets up the nose of the commenter and he or she feels hurt and points out that the discourse has become less than polite – which, of course, is correct.

This is not to excuse anyone or anything; it is just to show how things happen.

The way I see it, there is a bit of a conundrum here: if I write a post without any provocation [which I have done often], there will be no feedback or comments at all [which also happens occasionally]. If I use the method of deliberately provoking people, things can easily escalate. The secret is obviously to get the dose right.

So, when I get it wrong, do blame me!

Politeness is undoubtedly desirable and we should all aim to be polite on this blog and elsewhere. At the same time, we should remember that politeness is not a virtue; it is simply following rules without requiring any moral judgment. Politeness is an artifice. The essence of politeness is form; the essence of virtue is character. A polite bastard is still a bastard! And an impolite man of virtue is still a man of virtue.

Impoliteness may be hurtful but the truth is sometimes hurtful too. And there is a danger in going too far in both directions; exaggerated politeness is close to insincerity. If it were a choice between politeness and truth, I would always opt for the latter.

But luckily this is rarely the case; one can usually have both!

Why am I rambling on about such an issue? Because I want to appeal to all who write and comment here – not least myself – that politeness is a very good thing and enables a better exchange than we sometimes had on this blog. So, lets not escalate things again, let’s understand little provocations for what they are meant to be: a stimulus to have an open, challenging but nevertheless polite debate.

15 Responses to Random thoughts on politeness

  • EE
    Perfectly well argued point, though -as an aside- I would say that there are always going to be people on blogs such as this and Quackometer who can’t tell the difference between ‘obsequiousness’ and ‘politeness’. The kind who descend into narcissistic anger at being disagreed with, or being asked for evidence.
    The difference, that is, between the right to an opinion-unarguable as far as I’m concerned- and the right to have that opinion respected, which is of course idiotic and immediately contradictory as a general rule.
    Not many of them around recently, but I do have to admit that I miss the occasional altmed who would flounce off in a huff, claiming that he/she had never met such impolite and aggressive people, and had thought that this site and others like it were places where different ‘therapies’ could be ‘discussed’.
    But I wander. I realise that’s not exactly what you were referring to.
    I think Prince Charles could do with a good swearing at though.

  • Well said; however, I would have liked to you to have included “respect for the views and experience of others”

    • Colin-
      Perhaps you missed my gripping argument about the distinction between ‘respecting a person’s right to a view’ and on the other hand ‘respecting that person’s view’. Or maybe you disagree?
      Anyone has the right to the view that homosexuals or black people or women are inferior beings and should be treated as such.
      They do NOT have the right to have such views respected.
      As to respecting other people’s ‘experience’ – then we come down to the problem of anecdote versus evidence.
      Twenty years’ ‘experience’ in homeopathy is still twenty years of ‘experience’ in flimflam and flapdoodlle. I do not respect it, and anybody who thinks I am therefore being disrespectful can go away. I was going to say ‘bugger off’, but I shall respect EE’s argument.

    • If he had said that it would have been wrong

      “Respect for the views and experience of others”

      Appropriate respect is due for a person, whatever their view, particularly if they are unknown
      Respect is due for good methodology in assessing evidence in order to formulate a view (+ or -)
      The view on its own deserves no independent respect.

      “Experience” is extremely subjective, being subject to things like preconception & recall bias, will almost always be in small numbers, is poorly controlled & there will be a publication bias, so is a very poor standard of evidence when compared to almost all others, especially double-blind randomised & controlled trials.

    • @Colin

      “respect for the views and experience of others” = suffer fools gladly. Not easy, in practice.

    • Rubbish. That respect must be earned first. Do you respect the views and experience of spousal abusers, or child molesters, or neo-Nazis, or Daesh butchers? If not, why not?

      You do not get to carve out a untouchable exemption for your deeply-held views and experience without opening the same door to all of their deeply-held views and experience as well.

      Do not bring Religious Special Pleading to Logic 101 unless you are prepared to deal with the consequences. Prof Ernst says we should not insult each other, but honestly you insult yourself.

      • The word “respect” does not mean “agree” The original post referred to comments made on this blog, which is to what I responded. Some of the anonymous persons commenting on this blog may well belong to the categories to which you refer but to my knowledge they have not expressed them on this blog. So what is your point?

        • So Colin — to be clear — when you responded to the original post with “Well said; however, I would have liked to you to have included “respect for the views and experience of others””, you actually meant “respect for the views and experience of others posting comments on this blog, regardless of how nutty, kooky, and demonstrably showing ignorance they may be. In other words, every commenter’s remarks and opinions are equally valuable and deserving of respect.

          Do you not consider — even in the case of people commenting on this blog — the level of respect due must first be earned? Do you not now see the point ‘has’ was making with his extreme examples?

        • Colin-I think that most of us understand quite clearly that ‘respect’ does not mean ‘agree’. I made the simple point earlier that ‘respecting someone.’s right to an opinion’ is not the same as. ‘respecting their opinion’. What is it here that you don’t quite understand? You expressed your view that this site should respect other people’s opinions and experiences.It is my view, as I explained, that one should NOT respect other people’s views if, say, they are lracist. Their right to believe them, yes. Their right to have them respected, no. Siame thing with people’s ‘experiences’ with, say, homeopathy or being inspected in the genital area by spacemen. Hold those views if you insist, but don’t get so carried away with narcissism that you demand they be ‘respected’. That’s edging towards the position of saying ‘It must be true because I say it happened’.

        • Durr, exactly who here ever said “respect” means “agree”? Of course one can respect a view without ever agreeing with it. For instance, I can respect various political views that are not my own because I can see the motives and reasoning that leads others to arrive at those particular positions. Whereas as even a blind man can see the willfully self-deceiving self-serving motives and motivated reasoning that you use to prop up your pseudomedical religion; so why the hell should anyone feel obliged respect those?

          p.s. I also totally don’t respect your debating skills either, because your straw-men fallacies, zero logic, and total failure even to try debunking your own arguments before inflicting them on anyone else is a gross insult their intelligence. If you’re going to lie straight to other people’s faces, you could at least try to show some degree of competence. They still won’t agree with you, and they’ll also hate your guts once they figure out how just how royally they’ve been had, but at least they’ll respect the heck out of how well you did it.

  • You all have good luck with that; an issue with all sides. Toddles.

    • You all, as you put it, could at least have the politeness, before lecturing others on the subject, to explain why you feel happy to associate with a gentleman who refers to his critics as ‘dimwits’.
      Perhaps you were absent on the afternoon when your degree mill covered this subject.

  • The dictionary definition of ‘to respect’ that I have is:
    ‘To have due regard for (someone’s feelings, wishes, or rights).
    “I respected his views”
    synonyms:show consideration for, show regard for, take into consideration, take into account, make allowances for, take cognizance of, observe, pay heed/attention to, bear in mind, be mindful of, be heedful of, remember.’

    So, having had due regard, and taken into consideration the feelings and opinions of others, it can still be acceptable to say “…but what a lot of tripe, piffle, poppycock, balderdash, codswallop, twaddle and tosh.”
    Or ‘B.S’ would be shorter!

  • I’m currently reading up on Paracelsus. Apart from all the esoteric ideas like sympathetic medicine and microcosm reflecting macrocosm etc which are still in circulation, what really strikes me is that some of his attitudes also seems to have been emulated continuously over the centuries — the hostility to established medicine, vitriolic attacks on opponents, rejection of certain traditional ideas deemed dogmatic, blind adherence to other traditional ideas mysteriously deemed unquestionable, incomprehensible theories latched onto by followers and never let go, and a dogged indifference to being called a charlatan.

    (Sadly, his commitment to exact descriptions of symptoms, and dedication to research and experimentation seems to have disappeared in the mists of time.)

    I can’t help but think that this is ultimately where a good deal of this vitriol originates.

    • Hey, don’t forget Aristotle. His much lauded and utterly broke-ass model of “knowledge” acquisition and usage is still screwing up every facet of humanity two-and-a-half millennia on. (Even science isn’t immune: just look at the atrocious modern trend toward quantity over quality in paper publishing.) Paracelsus is a piker by comparison.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Gravityscan Badge

Recent Comments

Note that comments can be edited for up to five minutes after they are first submitted.


Click here for a comprehensive list of recent comments.

Categories