For the record, here is a link to the video of the relevant portion of “Strange Islands” from BBC’s South Pacific documentary series which Radford and UFO buff Dave Masko claimed discussed ancient astronauts on Easter Island.
That said, I had a very specific purpose for publishing my criticism online. Radford published his piece on Discovery News, the news outlet of a major media company, and his incorrect story was picked up on dozens of websites and several major world newspapers, including at least three in India. None of these other outlets fact-checked the claims either, and a combined audience numbering in the millions of potential readers were misled by a flawed claim.
Radford took me to task for publishing a critique of his piece without the courtesy of first letting him know privately about the errors I found in it, which he said forms the basis of the “proper” criticism as defined by skeptic Ray Hyman in his article “On Criticism,” specifically principle 7, which instructs the critic to assume the best of intentions on the part of the claimant until proved otherwise. I do not think I did anything less. I felt that it was important to get the facts out there quickly to stem misinformation, just as I do when ancient astronaut theorists make false claims. Even though Radford later (silently) corrected his Discovery News article, the derivative articles will be floating around the Net forever, with no indication that anything is amiss.
The question of “proper” criticism of claims is an interesting one, but it takes us into murky ethical territory that I try to stay clear of. In his article on criticism, Hyman was writing with a very specific purpose. He intended to lay the groundwork for a network of mutual support meant to forward “the common cause of explaining the skeptical agenda.” However, I’m not comfortable with restricting my criticism to promoting a fixed agenda. As I see it, facts are facts, and the truth is important even when the “home team” is the one making the mistake. I am also uncomfortable with tipping off subjects to criticisms in a published piece, something leftover, I guess, from my journalistic training. It just seems like collusion to me.
Nevertheless, Hyman’s article contains important points that have much to say about the Discovery News piece, as well as my reaction to it. Hyman wrote:
Many well-intentioned critics have jumped into the fray without carefully thinking through the various implications of their statements. They have sometimes displayed more emotion than logic, made sweeping charges beyond what they can reasonably support, failed to adequately document their assertions, and, in general, failed to do the homework necessary to make their challenges credible.
I don’t want to pick on Ben Radford. He usually does great work, and I love most of what he has written. Out of his hundreds of articles, blog posts, and books, I’ve disagreed with him, I think, three times: the Discovery News piece, his article on psychic predictions, and the antecedents of the Chupacabra. That’s not a particularly lengthy list of disagreements and criticisms.
We all make mistakes after all. I’ve had to make more than one blog post explaining an honest error. It happens. What frightens me more is the way a single mistake, however accidental, can travel around the world and be enshrined in newspaper archives and Google searches for months or years to come thanks to the copy-and-paste culture of the internet. That's why I felt it was important to get the facts out in the hope that fewer readers will believe something that isn't true.