Is PZ Myers over the top? Is Phil Plait too nice? Is Chris Mooney right about framing? If I meet a Creationist, should I throw a fossil over his head?
A while back, I did a radio show with a skeptic who happened to be a musician. One of the main topics was whether or not being mean to people who did not agree with you was OK. I was on the side that it was often OK, certainly not the only way to do it, but that the entire conversation about being mean vs. nice had become too uni-dimensional and counter productive, that there were times and places for being stern and firm, and times and places to complement the opposition, and times and places to just smile politely while you are reloading. The musician was of the opinion that it was almost always necessary to be civil and polite. At the end of the interview, we had the pleasure of listening to his rap song about skepticism, in which he said (rapped) numerous things that any non-skeptic would take, I’m quite sure, as nasty insults. His song was harsh. He was being a total dick about it. Made me laugh.
Obviously, he did not think he was being a dick, and he thought no one else should be a dick, but when it came down to articulating his strongly held positions (I shall avoid the use of the word “belief” here), in an artistic medium in which he excelled (the song was quite good) the truth just kind of got in the way and the contrast between a rational view and a wooish view became too strong to gloss.
I want to say immediately that I am not suggesting that when push comes to shove there will always be a harshness to the atheistic, skeptical, or scientific argument. That is not true. The musician of whom I speak, Omar Mouallem (here is his site, could have made a song that would not have made a non skeptic feel badly, and also would have probably carried a message that would have been missed on many, but that would have eventually snuck up on a non-suspecting few and nudged their thinking a little. (And, his song could have been a lot more harsh than it was.) My point is not that being a dick is inevitable. It is not, and it is good that there are those who are good at not being a dick when speaking, writing, or singing about the particular area of rational thinking that is dear to them.
But true civility in real culture wars is rare, most people claiming it to be necessary or even true are deluded about their specific claims, and it is probably not helpful or necessary in many cases. Moreover, it seems to me that many times individuals who are calling for others to be nicer while they themselves are being strong-worded are speaking across issues. Chris Mooney is not particularly lovey-dovey with anthropocentric global warming denialists. But he often criticizes, for instance, PZ Myers for being similarly harsh on various spokespeople for religion. I think that my skeptical colleague Omar may have been doing something similar: He was quite annoyed about non-rational thinking (and justifiably so) but didn’t like how people in other areas of critique (atheism, or whatever) were making their case.
Being a dick vs. not is not a matter of effectiveness of one’s approach. It is, rather, a matter of effective expenditure of one’s resources. Getting in the face of people you fundamentally disagree with may or may not change their minds. It is easy to argue that it is unlikely to work. It seems like it should not work. It seems as though screaming at someone will make them stop listening right away. But it is equally easy to argue that being nice to them will also not work. If you’re really nice, they may not even hear you. Studies done in relation to the whole idea of “framing science*” or other similar (political) issues show that when you are making arguments counter to the social or political beliefs of specific individuals, you can get them to hate you … and reject your ideas … less severely and less immediately if you ‘frame’ the argument appropriately, which includes (but is not limited to) being reasonably civil about it. The same studies, however, seem to also show that the effect wears off in a short to medium amount of time. The question remains, then, was being nice worth it? On the other hand, the question of being mean has the same problem. Is the energy spent being harsh well spent?
The answer to both questions probably matters at the more strategic level than the level at which one is simply trying to convince another person to change their strongly held beliefs and adopt your strongly held beliefs instead. Being somewhat flamboyant in one’s attacks on irrationality can get you somewhere, and by extension, it can help your argument. George Carlin*, Lewis Black* and PZ Myers* represent a constellation of personalities that are consistent in tone, in your face, often dickish, and widely disseminated. A mealy mouthed George Carlin, a non-profane and in-your-face Lewis Black or a wishy-washy PZ Myers would be … well, not mentioned here because we would have a hard time thinking of who they were. Message managed.
And, there is this: A strong and loud voice that is heard over the others partly because others quieten down to catch the next outrage may or may not convince those who are already non-convinceable, but it does rally others of like mind and strengthen the cause itself, even as the more gentile decry that the cause is being ruined.
On the other hand, one could argue that the “don’t be a dick” camp has a lot of effect as well. Phil Plait, MrDon’t Be A Dick himself, is widely paid-attention-to. We can only assume that his message is getting through to somebody, and he is more than capable of rallying the troops. As long as he is not actually being a dick about it, he is demonstrating the effectiveness of the civil message.
On the third hand, if I may be allowed such an anatomical excursion, I had always thought of Richard Dawkins* as being a very civil person, civil even when he is making a strong argument in disagreement with some other person or some point of view. Yet, I’m told again and again that he is not civil at all, that he is a total ass, that he is an aggressive meaney. Do these people not hear this nice British accent and understand these well sculpted Public School sentences????? Do they not know what civil means????? Jeeesh.
In the end, here is how it is: Being a dick is not as bad as some have claimed it to be, and has benefits. Not that I would know, because I’m always nice. Not being a dick has fewer benefits than claimed. The assertion that meanness turns off those that already hate you but that being nice to them somehow “gets through” is often asserted, rarely tested, and as far as I can see, is woo. On the other hand, civility has its benefits, as does stridency. Yet, it is more important to realize the strategic load that these approaches have, and to plan accordingly. Above all, let us avoid letting the philosophy of which we speak become yet another New Age belief (most of the assertions made in most of the writing and speaking on this are unsupported by any evidence proffered), or yet another distraction from our ultimate, variously shared objectives.
For the dickishly oriented, I’ll leave you with a few guidelines that come to mind. I hope you’ll add more in the comments.
Don’t be only a dick. If you are going to be a dick, try not to be only a dick. If you show up unannounced and lean into your opposition in the nastiest way possible at the outset and do nothing else ever, you will probably not get as far as you were hoping. Chances are your message will be missed. Most likely you will in fact get written off too soon. Think of the race car analogy. The idea at Indy is to go around the oval track 500 times without crashing and faster than the other racers. But, you don’t show up at the track going 200 miles per hours. Rather, all the cars start off slow, go around the track a few times behind a pace car, and when none of the cars blows up (because they are such high strung machines) and everything seems fine, the pace car pulls aside and they start to race. Imagine a car pulling out of the pack and passing the pace car. That driver would be doing a very good job at being a dick. And would be expelled from the race immediately.
Don’t be a stupid dick. If you are going to be a dick about a specific issue, don’t do it by saying stupid, incorrect things. In a recent discussion about the utility of drinking cranberry juice to ward off urinary tract infections (see this), the first item to come up on a search of skeptical web sites was a nasty comment (on some blog somewhere) strongly dismissing the claim and stating unequivocally that “double blind studies have shown that cranberry juice has no effect whatsoever” or words to that effect. The commenter was anonymous (which is factually relevant here), dickish, and incorrect. There are other things the commenter could have said that would have let him or her still be a dick, which was probably the point, but that would be less embarrassingly wrong.
Don’t claim you are not a dick when you are, unless, like me, you are trying to be funny. Or, more specifically, don’t be throwing rocks if you live in a glass house, and chances are, you live in a glass house. There is a certain amount of cathartic truth to the PZ Myers approach. We really are in opposition. This really is a war, just like Chris Mooney, ironically says it is. If you find yourself claiming that someone else is being too harsh, do a quick check: Are they acting in a specific sub area of discourse different from the one you practice in? Are you a ghost-buster-buster and they an atheist? Are you a public health supporter and they more of a “Myth Buster” kind of person? Maybe, (cough cough)in some cases, the harshness you perceive is harsher because it is directed, a little, or more than a little, at you.