Many people may consider physicist Stephen Hawkings to be one of the brightest minds in the history of modern physics. Even with his huge contribution to his field and our understanding of the universe, some people, including his colleagues, would still shred his writings.

“Cosmic Clowning: Stephen Hawking’s ‘new’ theory of everything is the same old CRAP” Title of an article by John Horgan, director of the Center for Science Writing at Stevens Institute of Technology

“The anthropic principle has always struck me as so dumb that I can’t understand why anyone takes it seriously.” John Horgan commenting on Hawkings’ writings

“The more I ponder the physical part of Schrðdinger’s theory, the more disgusting it appears to me.” Famous quote from Werner Heisenberg, German theoretical physicist

“If one has to stick to this damned quantum jumping, then I regret ever having been involved in this thing.” Erwin Schrödinger

“The arguments apparently got very heated. . . these often ended when Hawking said ‘rubbish.’ ‘When Hawking says “rubbish,”’ he said, ‘you’ve lost the argument.’” 

Why are these physicists so rude?

In the hard sciences, wrestling with the hard questions, pointing out the flaws in another scientist’s ideas and being very direct about it are a valued and respected part of the work. Indeed, one scientist once was listing all the things he loved about science and ended it by saying, “But most of all, I love the arguments!” Why on earth would he love that?

He went on to elaborate that it was through rigorous discussion and debate that they got ideas, refined their knowledge, found the errors in their hypotheses, and made progress. In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman (1), physicist Richard Feynman tells a story when Oppenheimer first came to Los Alamos to help work on the development of the atomic bomb. At the first meeting when Oppenheimer was speaking to the staff, Feynman, then an up-and-coming young physicist, stood in the back of the room. While everyone else treated Oppenheimer with deference, Feynman (probably to the horror of his colleagues) had the audacity to question some of the things he said.

At the end of the meeting, Oppenheimer said, “I want that man on my team.” ​

He saw that Feynman’s questions were good and valuable. The project was too important and too dangerous to have any errors. Oppenheimer valued having someone who was not only brilliant and had excellent critical thinking skills but was also not afraid to question and point out potential errors. Such a man would be much more useful than a team member who was afraid to think independently or disagree.

In massage therapy, the practice of debate and scientific inquiry has not been part of our history. As recently as twenty years ago, many massage therapists did not study anatomy and physiology. Even when they did, they were often taught by instructors who had no formal education in such subjects. Before the internet, information traveled slower and students accepted what their instructors told them, assuming they knew what they were talking about.

With the emergence of the internet, massage therapists not only had easy access to information and research, but they were also more able to communicate with each other and discuss topics of importance to the profession. As discussions became more common, so did a familiar problem: the clash between what was traditionally taught and what is known — through science — about how the body and nature works. Therapists who were accustomed to an environment in which what was taught was accepted unquestioningly were often taken aback when their assumptions were questioned or if it were pointed out that their beliefs contradicted human physiology, biology, or basic laws of physics. Requests for evidence to support claims were perceived as attacks, and — without making a distinction between themselves as a person and their ideas — these perceived attacks were taken as an assault on them personally. Discussions about a subject would often become derailed by complaints about “tone” where the style of delivery takes precedence over the ideas themselves. Unless the conversation is able to return to the topic at hand, meaningful discussions about the subject cease at that point.

Tone Policing Has Historic and Social Significance

Complaints about “tone” are not restricted to the world of massage therapy but in many internet discussions in general. In fact, complaints about “tone” precede internet discussions and have been used against feminists and racial minorities to distract from the issues they may raise in political or social settings. The Wikipedia entry on “tone policing” (which includes the terms tone trolling, tone argument, and tone fallacy), defines it as “an ad hominem and antidebate appeal based on genetic fallacy. It attempts to detract from the validity of a statement by attacking the tone in which it was presented rather than the message itself.” Academic studies of online discussions have documented how “tone” arguments are often used against women. (2) One thing that seems to be agreed upon: complaints about “tone” are usually an attempt to divert attention away from the true subject of the conversation.

The tone argument may, on its surface, seem trivial, but there are many implications that have far-reaching effects. It’s nothing new. During the 1960s and early 1970s, activists in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War, the African-American Civil Rights Movement, and American Feminist Movement were often criticized for being “too angry.” Thus, the issues they raised were dismissed by deflecting attention away from the content to the manner in which it was delivered. In today’s internet, the tone argument can invade even the most benign discussions if someone questions a shared assumption. This is especially true in the world of online massage therapy discussions.

The use of accurate language, which would be taken for granted in scientific circles, is criticized for being “unprofessional” or “rude.” One cannot use the term quackery or pseudoscience to describe quackery and pseudoscience, nor can one point out that the basic premises of homeopathy so grossly violate the laws of nature that they are laughable. In society, tone policing has often been used by men to shut down women, or against minorities who speak up about issues of importance to them that the dominant culture does not recognize. In the world of massage therapy, it is often used against science-minded massage therapists when they raise questions about common unsupported assumptions, question cherished beliefs, point out science that contradicts popular ideas, or ask for evidence. When a participant cannot support their claims, the issue is often sidestepped by disputing the style in which someone communicates rather than the substance of the argument itself. The discussion then veers away from the topic at hand and deteriorates into accusations about the character of the person asking for evidence whose “tone” is now being criticized.

​Huge amounts of time are wasted on style rather than substance and little to nothing is accomplished in moving the profession forward. Indeed, accusations about tone are usually a thinly veiled attempt at maintaining the status quo and keeping the field of massage therapy from updating its collective thinking and moving forward. Rather than taking a serious look at what is known about how human physiology works and comparing our assumptions to it, the charge that one’s style of communication is problematic stops us from further examining whether our ideas are supportable or not.

You Need Cues to Get a Better Sense of “Tone”

Without visual cues, such as facial expression or body language, or actual tone of voice, how does one discern “tone” in written, online communication? The usage of words which convey emotion is one obvious way, but when there is no emotional language present, how does one determine “tone”? In a recent online discussion among science-minded massage therapists, one therapist’s answer was to “use more words.” Indeed, language which is direct and to the point is often perceived by some massage therapists as being “rude” or an “attack.” A simple direct question such as “Where did that information come from?” can elicit a huge protest from therapists who are not accustomed to having their assumptions questioned while those who are used to such discussions see it as a reasonable request for information and are generally quite content to cite their sources without fuss.

Discussions have taken place among some science-minded therapists on how to communicate better with those who do not share a scientific perspective. Articles on how to change people’s minds have been discussed. Like the use of manual therapy to resolve pain, there does not seem to be a single or obvious answer. There seems to be basic divide between those who are emotion-based and those who are reason-based.

​Is it possible for the reason-based to discuss the plausibility of treating infertility with abdominal massage or the evidence on moving cranial bones with manual therapy with those who are emotion-based? If someone is clearly misinformed about human physiology, what is the best way to reach them if they are not already disposed to thinking critically? If someone has not made a distinction between themselves and their ideas, contradicting their beliefs can be threatening to their sense of who they are as a person and no matter how diplomatically it may be attempted, it may be met with a verbally violent response. Indeed, one of the ironies about tone arguments is that those making the complaints about tone often do it in a manner that is vicious and personal.

In one recent online discussion, the question was raised as to how best inform new participants about the generally accepted consensus among the members. In a group where new members were constantly joining, they were often new to the information and did not share the same knowledge base as older members. When one has no idea of the experience or understanding of an unfamiliar member, explaining too much can seem to them that one is talking down to them and explaining too little can be interpreted as being arrogant. Even posting a document explaining the culture of a group – that one should be prepared to support one’s claims with evidence and should expect one’s ideas to be challenged but personal attacks are not tolerated – has not been successful at avoiding these conflicts. Either the documents are not read or they are not understood. What then?

Often those who complain about tone will make what seems to be a reasonable appeal for people to be “nice” or “respectful.” Indeed, insults and attacks against a person should not be tolerated, but often the request that people be nice and respectful is really a thinly veiled demand that people not disagree or point out errors in one’s thinking. While it may be appropriate at a tea party or a family gathering to refrain from contradicting a beloved, the focus in professional discussions is on issues of importance to the profession and the ability to speak freely, question each other, and exchange ideas.

Daniel Lee Crocker, an early contributor to Wikipedia, proposed a protocol for communication that has come to be called “Crocker’s Rules.” Crocker’s Rules are not rules to be imposed on someone else but a discipline to take upon yourself to minimize emotionality in discussions. When you declare you are operating by Crocker’s Rules, you are saying that “other people are allowed to optimize their messages for information, not for being nice to you.” Crocker’s Rules go so far as to say that “Anyone is allowed to call you a moron and claim to be doing you a favor. (Which, in point of fact, they would be. One of the big problems with this culture is that everyone’s afraid to tell you you’re wrong, or they think they have to dance around it.)”

Crocker’s Rules do not give you permission to insult others but, instead, means that others can communicate freely with you and not worry about insulting you. Crocker advocated that one should use tact in communicating with others, to be “liberal in what you accept and conservative in what you send.” It is a mental discipline that may be hard to follow, but in the interest of furthering productive discussion it may be one worth taking on.

Are tone complaints ever legitimate? Insulting personal remarks, ad hominem attacks, slander, or verbal abuse do not belong in professional discussions. In general, what is considered “polite” can vary so much among individuals, regions, and different cultures that to take offense when none is intended just makes rational discussion more difficult. With the internet, participants may come from all over the world. English (or whatever language is being used) may not be everyone’s native language, adding more to the complexity of communication. When we find ourselves taking offense or responding emotionally to a piece of information or a relevant question, perhaps we should take a step back and ask ourselves why that is? Are we really hearing what the other person is saying or are we hearing our own emotional reaction to an idea that challenges our beliefs? Did the person really mean to attack us personally or are they just expressing an idea different than our own?

In the absence of any clear evidence of ill will, perhaps we should assume others’ good will rather than making the worst possible interpretation of a comment. Even if they have ill-will towards us, we probably should not take it personally. Often the lashing out may be an expression of the pain they are feeling when they realize that the ideas that were important to them, upon which they may have based their identity, may be wrong.

I don’t know what is the solution to the problem of “tone.” Clearly we can continue to try to hone our communication skills, try to find common ground with colleagues with whom we differ, and to not take it personally when others complain about our tone or lash out at us. Beyond that, we cannot control how others react. We can only control ourselves.

Key & Peele demonstrate an excellent example of  the “tone fallacy.”

 

References

1. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character, Richard Feynman

2. Herring, Susan C. “Gender and power in on-line communication.” The handbook of language and gender (2003): 202-228.