Of Skepticism and Being Mean

I’m a fan of skepticism. Really, I am. I was reading a post recently about a necklace that supposedly cured eczema and I thought how ridiculous that might be that a necklace would cure a skin condition that it didn’t even touch. In cases like this, skepticism means looking for scientific evidence that a certain product works or doesn’t work. However, one thing skepticism should never involve is being mean.

Yesterday, Shellie Ross of Florida (aka military_mom) found her 2 year old son in the pool. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it. Earlier this year, I posted about the four scariest moments of my life. They all involved medical emergencies with NHL or JSL. In three of them, I seriously thought I was losing my child. In those moments, I got the barest glimpse into how Shellie must feel now. Not a full understanding, mind you, but a general idea. And let me tell you, that barest glimpse will haunt me for the rest of my life. A “full understanding” has got to be a million times worse. Considering the mere possibility makes me want to grab my boys, squeeze them tight and never let them go. My condolences go out to Shellie and her family.

Most people reacted, like I did, with shock, sadness and condolences. A vocal few, however, expressed skepticism that the event happened at all. They claimed to have contacted hospitals/news media and didn’t come up with anything. Therefore, these people claimed, the event didn’t happen at all and Shellie was running some kind of hoax. There were even allusions to balloon boy.

Now since those criticisms happened, news reports have begun to emerge indicating that Shellie wasn’t lying and her child really is dead. Ignoring those for a second (backing up to before she was vindicated against her critics), could the whole thing have been a hoax? Yes, it was within the realm of possibility. It is easier to fake certain things when you are online. As the old saying goes, “On the Internet, nobody knows that you’re a dog.

However, there’s something to be said for trust and basic human compassion too. If she was faking, what would we have lost by trusting in her and showing her compassion? We would have felt naive for a bit and then gone on with our lives. But if she was telling the truth (which she was) and we lambasted her for “faking it” when her son really had died? Then we would have been heartless idiots who had found a way to make the worst thing a parent can ever experience even worse.

I’ll risk being naive over heartless any day. I would rather err on the side of compassion and “innocent until proven guilty.” No, it doesn’t mean blindly accepting anything I’m told, but it does mean knowing when to use tact in your replies and recognizing that your words could hurt someone if you are wrong. These critics didn’t have any tact and saw nothing wrong in trampling over Shellie just to prove that they were right (which they weren’t). That wasn’t skepticism, that was just being mean.

Now, I think I’ll put on my own skepticism hat to debunk two of the critics’s stories. One person claimed that, at the time her son fell into the pool, Shellie was twittering about her chickens. Another insinuated that she twittered instead of helping her son or Twittered immediately afterward (as if her first reaction to seeing her son in the pool was “gotta tweet this”). Let’s look into these. The news story gives the incident time as 5:38pm. Using the Twitter API (and not the “posted 20 hours ago” message that Twitter.com gives you), we can see that her “fog scared the birds” tweet happened at “Mon Dec 14 22:22:19 +0000 2009.” Translated to Eastern Time (-5 GMT), that’s 5:22pm. Yes, this is somewhat close to when it happened, but a 16 minute span is far from tweeting about chickens while her son was falling into the pool.

As for the “tweeting during the incident” claims, her “my 2 yr old fell in the pool” post happened at “Mon Dec 14 23:12:53 +0000 2009”, or 6:12pm Eastern. This is 34 minutes after the incident. A half hour after the incident is certainly not Twittering during it. As someone who has had a child go to the ER (too many times), I know the general timeline. At 34 minutes after the event, she would have been in the hospital. They would have likely separated her son from her son while they tried to revive him. (A distraught mother isn’t very helpful and can get in the way unintentionally.) She was likely alone at the time (her husband’s deployed and they just moved to the area) and made a quick outreach to a support network, Twitter in this case.

So, in short, the critics criticized her for things she didn’t do and jumped to conclusions. These weren’t the actions of skeptics looking for proof. If they had really been seeking proof, they would have waited a day or two before pointing to the lack of news media reports. (After all, the news media isn’t the quickest to report things.) If all they sought was proof, then the news article would have been enough. Now, though, they question the timeline and her priorities. Instead of simply seeking the truth, these people really just refuse to admit that they were in the wrong. Instead of admitting their missteps, they move the goalposts and claim to only want to know the whole story. Meanwhile, Shellie is made to suffer their barbs on top of her already tremendous loss.

My heart and condolences go out to Shellie. For the critics, my sincere hope is that they learn how to apologize, when keep quiet and how to be tactful.