Don’t be a dick

Over the weekend, the skeptics gathered at James Randi’s annual The Amazing Meeting, or TAM. By all accounts, it was a great show. Probably the most buzz came from a talk by Phil Plait, which became known as the “don’t be a dick” speech, because, well, he argued that skeptics will be most effective when they aren’t dicks.

As I wasn’t there, I couldn’t comment on the speech, but twitter exploded over it. A surprising number of PZ Myers’ fans seemed to think Plait was talking about PZ, though PZ wasn’t mentioned. Interesting, that PZ’s supporters either think he’s a dick, or think other people think he’s a dick, but that’s a discussion for another day. PZ, who couldn’t accompany his wife to TAM, had to sort out what was said from the twatting and blogging going on at TAM, summarizing his view as “Nothing I saw from #tam8 was a personal attack. I just hate the ‘dick’ meme that’s growing–it narrows the range of tactics unnecessarily.” This, of course, led to various dick jokes.

Daniel Loxton wrote three days after the talk: “Wow. I’m still thinking about @Badastronomer’s amazing #TAM8 speech in Las Vegas this weekend. I could not be more moved and impressed.” Which is high praise.

So I’m excited to see that Andrew Arensburger has posted a partial transcript of the talk, and then responds to it, generally agreeing. I’ll let you read the transcript yourselves, but I want to address some of the examples and counterexamples Andrew gives to Phil’s “don’t be a dick” thesis. To be clear, the nickel version of Phil’s talk is:

  1. People seem to be getting meaner, and skeptics in particular are getting meaner about debunking things.
  2. “How many of you no longer believe in [woo]…because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot, brain-damaged, and a retard? [Very few hands go up]“
  3. Research indicates that it’s hard to debunk a claim and have the person being corrected actually remember the right answer.
  4. People are wired for faith: it’s easier to believe than not to believe, and people who abandon one set of irrational beliefs often do so by replacing them with new irrational beliefs.
  5. Given the challenges of overcoming irrational belief, why make that work harder?
  6. is your goal to score a cheap point, or is your goal to win the damn game?
  7. I think I can sum up my points like this: first, always ask yourself what your goal is. […] Is this argument necessary? What is your goal? What are you trying to accomplish? Before you talk, before you leave a comment, before you engage a pseudoscientist, before you raise your hand, before you sign that email, ask yourself: is this going to help? Is this going to allow me to achieve my goal? And you also need to ask yourself: will this impede me from achieving my goal? Is this just to make me feel better, or am I trying to change the world?

    And second, and not to put too fine a point on it, don’t be a dick. … All being a dick does is score cheap points. It does not win the hearts and minds of people everywhere, and honestly, winning those hearts and minds, that’s our goal.

Now one is always free to say that they don’t care about winning hearts and minds, that Phil’s goal of wiping out counterfactual belief is not your goal. Fine. But it’s a reasonable goal, one that scientists, atheists, and skeptics of any religious persuasion can endorse. If someone rejects that whole concept, I don’t know that we have anything to talk about.

Arensburger replies by noting a series of ideas or fields which he thinks support or undermine the “don’t be a dick” thesis. I tend to think that the counterexamples he offers, aren’t.

Telepathy: I used to believe telepathy was real… What started me down the road to not believing in telepathy anymore was my science teacher … He didn’t insult me or anything, he just told me that it didn’t exist.… Point to Phil.

The Open-Source movement:
…Richard Stallman … believes passionately in open source, and has argued for it for many years.

But it wasn’t until Eric Raymond began arguing for it that open source and free software really took off and started being taken seriously in corporate circles. While Stallman was known for berating those who wrote closed-source software as greedy, Raymond preferred to explain to people why open source was in their own best interests and how they could make money off of it. Point to Phil.

The “New” Atheism (and probably also women’s suffrage, civil rights, and gay rights):
There’s nothing new about the “New Atheism”. A lot of the arguments atheists use today have been around for decades, centuries, even millennia. Answers to the major ones seem to be part of the standard apologetic curriculum in seminaries (“Why is there no evidence for God?” “He doesn’t want to violate our free will.” “Why should I believe our scripture and that of other religions?” “Because ours was inspired by God, and theirs were written by humans.”) But — at least in this country — it was losing ground to fundamentalist Christianity at least for the second half of the 20th century.

It wasn’t until Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and others wrote their surprise best-sellers that atheism became part of the national discourse, to the point where a US president mentions in a speech, and prominent religious figures feel they have to respond. Point against Phil (but provisionally; see below).


I can’t endorse this one. First, the analogy to civil rights movements is deeply flawed, and goes unargued here. Indeed, I think examples of civil rights, gay rights, and womens rights actually support Phil’s point. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought together a massive movement, across religious and racial boundaries, in favor of civil rights. He got invited to the White House and he used his influence to lean hard on JFK and LBJ on civil rights legislation. He was remarkably politically effective, and his non-violent, inclusive approach was a big part of the civil rights movement’s success.

Things broke down a bit after his death. There had always been other factions, but folks like Malcolm X, Black Panthers, African Nationalists, etc. gained visibility. Their off-putting and often violent rhetoric, not to mention occasional violent acts, did a lot to allow Nixon to run his racist Southern Strategy, putting civil rights on hold basically until the Clinton years. Point to Phil.

And in womens rights, are inclusivist feminist groups more effective or are separatist feminists more effective? How often do you see someone like Valerie Soianas and her S.C.U.M (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto cited as proof that feminists are just man-haters, and that groups like NOW, or calls for an equal rights amendment, or equal pay for women, or other simple gender equity measures, can all be marginalized? Again, point: Phil.

In gay rights, how much help was it for ACT UP! to storm St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, desecrating a communion wafer along the way? LGBT leaders decried that militancy, and generally regarded the action as “utter failure.” It raised visibility, but it didn’t raise acceptance of LGBT citizens, nor of the importance of resources for people with AIDS. What did the job was thousands of individuals telling their families and friends about their sexual orientation. That took gayness from being “other” to being close. I know people in California who voted against gay marriage in the early 2000s but actively campaigned against Prop. 8 in 2008 because their sons and daughters came out and wanted to be able to marry the same-sex partner of their dreams. The single best predictor of whether someone supports marriage equality is how many close friends or relatives they know who are gay. Point: Phil.

As to the “New Atheists,” I’d say that the evidence is not yet available. Yes, the “New Atheists” increased the rate at which atheism was discussed publicly. I don’t know, but I suspect that President Obama would have given atheists a shout-out in the inaugural either way, but that’s not a testable claim. Religious figures have been responding to atheists forever, though, so that’s not really a change in anything. Rates of nonbelief are rising, but that rise began before the New Atheist books started coming out and getting major public discussion.

Futhermore, I am not aware of any consistent agreement about what the criteria for success would be among the “New Atheists.” Eradication of religion? A more vocal atheist minority? More representation in political office? WIth the civil rights movement, the repeal of Jim Crow laws was a simple and obvious metric for success. With feminism, equal pay and equal rights were clear measures of success, since there were blatantly discriminatory laws on the books and policies in effect. Similarly with gay rights, there are clear cases of institutional and enforced discrimination. With atheism, the case is murkier. There are undeniable problems to be solved in terms of discrimination against atheism and atheists, but the major legal barriers to atheism were overturned last century, often as a result of activism by other religious minorities. Which tends to argue for conciliation and collaboration, rather than absolute, unyielding, and indiscriminate opposition to all religions. But without a clear metric for success, we can’t know if the New Atheist strategy has worked or failed.

Yelled at at the intersection: …I was at an intersection where the traffic light had gone out. The way I learned it, at light-free intersections, one person goes through the intersection at a time, in order of arrival. I was about third in line. Four or five cars went through from the right, and then both cars ahead of me went, so I figured that was the way it was done in Nevada, so I followed. A driver coming the other way angrily yelled at me, “One at a time!” I felt chastised, and that perhaps I had committed a faux pas. Point against Phil.


But you knew the rule to begin with, then violated it, and got chastised for breaking a rule. That’s different, I’d say. But I welcome folks thoughts on how enforcing societal norms might be similar to debunking widely-believed but wrong claims.


Getting to people first: … there’s a lot to be said for being the first to get your message to people who either haven’t heard of the problem you’re rebutting, or don’t don’t have enough invested in it to cling to it tightly. But I also don’t know how I would have reacted if these articles had ended with “Given all of the above, the people who still believe this are clearly idiots.” So I won’t award any points for this one.


How does this argue against Phil. One can try to get a debunking out ahead of the curve without being a dick, and if debunking without being a dick is more effective, then it still works well if you get it out to people before they hear the woo.


Insult vs. explanation + insult: Explaining to people how they’re wrong and what the facts are, and insulting them, are not mutually exclusive. You can give an explanation, and then point out that your explanation should be patently obvious to anyone with a passing familiarity with reality, and therefore your opponent is a brain-dead moron. This is different from simply saying “You’re wrong, and an idiot to boot” and leaving it at that.

Of course, if you’re going to give an explanation anyway, then you might as well suppress your anger and frustration for a few more moments, and leave out the insults. So point to Phil.

The campus preacher:
I’ve mentioned Tom Short before. He’s the preacher who used to stand in front of the library when I was college and preach the standard fundie line, such as creationism, damnation, and the inerrancy of the King James Bible. He was so obnoxious and so clearly wrong, that he was the one who convinced me that if this is what Christianity is, then I want no part of it. I’ve since softened my stance, but still: point to Phil.

A safe place to land:
Greta Christina has a piece (good, as usual) called A Safe Place to Land: Making Atheism Friendly for the Deconverting. It’s all about showing wavering theists and people who aren’t happy with their religion that atheism is a viable option, that it doesn’t mean giving up friendship and passion and love and community. It’s all about drawing people toward atheism, rather than away from theism. The point goes to Phil.

Lewis Black:
One of the clips that plays in my mind when someone says something stupid is Lewis Black saying “You’re an idiot!” (the other is Greg House saying “You’re an idiot.”) … Black isn’t making much of a rational, pro-science argument; he mostly just uses derision to discredit creationists, Christian fundamentalists, and George Bush. So I think this is a good parallel to what Phil talked about in his presentation.

And yet, I think it works. It works because he’s funny, which makes him likable, and the audience wants to agree with him. This is not a rational approach, but an emotional one. Granted, the vast majority of bloggers aren’t as funny as Lewis Black, but if it succeeds in discrediting creationism, then it works. So although Phil talks about “what is your goal?”, I still think the point goes against him.

To award points either way, you’d have to know whether Lewis Black (or the Daily Show, which PZ Myers mentioned in a similar context) actually changes minds in his audience, or if they just figure he’s an asshole. I doubt many people leave a Lewis Black set, or finish an episode of the Daily Show, and think: “My thinking about George Bush has totally reversed itself.” Their audiences are quite small, and self-select from political liberals who generally agree with the politics of the shows. That Black’s approach works for someone who agrees with Black simply isn’t dispositive.

This brings me rather neatly to

Playing to Win:
…if you take the moral high road in an argument (say, by patiently explaining the nuances of your position instead of calling him retarded) and lose, then you’ve still lost.

This ties in neatly with Phil’s chess analogy: is he willing to sacrifice the moral high ground (analogous to the queen), if that’s what’s necessary to achieve the greater goal? Now, I understand that his goal is not just to bring people to the truth, but also to get people to believe things for the right reasons, to give them the tools to think for themselves. Do insults and vitriol ever work better than polite, rational discussion at achieving that goal, perhaps by spurring them to read up on critical thinking? I can’t award this point to Phil. Sorry.

I’m not seeing the argument here. It seems circular.

People will be insulted anyway, so go for it: There are people in the world who are offended at the very existence of atheists (or of evolutionists, or gays, or of pictures of Mohammed, or whatever), so why not give up on the whole “try not to offend anyone” thing altogether, and say what you want?
I suspect that Phil’s response would be something along the lines of: those people who are offended by your very existence are not the ones who should be setting the bar for what’s acceptable and unacceptable discourse. Rather, it should be about how the wider audience will perceive you. And that you can start with your own standards: how would you react to someone who said that, say, democracy is a bad idea? To someone who said you were an idiot for liking democracy? I think imaginary Phil has rebutted this argument, so the point goes to him.

Yes, but it’s worth emphasizing that the goal is not to make Deepak Chopra into the next James Randi. It’s to make it less likely that people who don’t have strong feelings about Chopra will side with him, and make it more likely that people who don’t know much about Randi still want to side with him and against Chopra. The undecideds are often much quieter than those with made-up minds, but those are the people we need to reach.

Santa Claus: Matt Dillahunty of the Atheist Community of Austin has pointed out that while many children stop believing in Santa Claus because they catch their parents putting presents under the tree, others stop believing because they get teased about it by the older kids on the school bus. Or at least, this can start them on the road to doubting Santa Claus and figuring out the truth.
More generally, people don’t want to feel foolish. If they think their opinion will get them laughed at, they’re more likely to keep quiet. Now, this doesn’t stop them from believing foolish things, but it does help keep them out of the way when you’re trying to teach someone else. There are still people out there who believe in flying saucers, the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, crop circles, and the CIA conspiracy to kill JFK, but they have no real sway in society because at this point they’re little more than a punchline. 9/11 truthers are, I think, rapidly heading down that road as well.

Along the same lines, while there’s still a lot of racism in the US, at least it’s gotten to the point where it’s no longer socially acceptable. This doesn’t stop people from being racists, but it does mean that anyone who wanted to, say, reintroduce segregated schools would quickly be booed out of the town meeting. If we could get to the point where creationism and ID are widely perceived as being a joke, then that would at least stop people from trying to subvert the teaching of science in public schools, which in itself would be a step forward. So I’ll score this as a point against Phil.

This can work well for truly fringe things, but gets much harder for things where strong majorities are against you. That’s why creationists rebrand their arguments as “intelligent design” or whatever’s next, but they don’t go away. People don’t want to teach “creationism,” but they do want “arguments against evolution” taught, for instance. You can damage the brand through mockery, but I don’t think that doing so roots out the underlying mental errors.

The straight man and the comedian: In a lot of comedy sketches, there’s a straight man, who isn’t funny at all, but just sets up the situation for the audience, so that the comedian can give the funny punchline. The comedian gets all the laughs, but the straight man plays a necessary part. Or, as one person put it, Dean Martin’s job is to make Jerry Lewis funny. Another analogy might be game hunting, where some people have the job of beating the bushes to drive rabbits and other game toward the hunters. So perhaps those of us without proper credentials or a knack for clear explanation can shame the people who believe in woo, and drive them toward teachers, people who can explain the facts.
Where this analogy breaks down is that beating or being the straight man are things that anyone can do, but that are also unrewarding. It’s much more glamorous to be the comedian, or the hunter. Whereas in this discussion, anyone can fling insults, and that’s also the fun part. It’s the difficult job of calm, patient education that is the thankless one, or at least the one that doesn’t deliver immediate visceral gratification. So this analogy doesn’t really work, and the point goes to Phil.

Have you ever changed your mind because someone called someone else an idiot?
This was my original question to Phil after the talk, and he said he considered it, but didn’t really have a good answer to it. Basically, if you believe in, say, homeopathy, and hear someone call a third person an idiot and a retard for believing in homeopathy, will that make you more or less likely to stop believing in it?

This sounds similar to the beater/hunter analogy above, but I think it’s slightly yet significantly different, and closer to the chess analogy. It’s also related to something I learned on talk.origins: you don’t argue with creationists to convince your ostensive disputant. Rather, you’re playing to the audience, the lurkers who have stumbled onto the discussion but aren’t posting because they don’t have anything to add, or because they’re afraid of being ripped to shreds, or whatever.

Now, this may just be a rationalization for why a bunch of us nerds kept going back and slapping down the same bad arguments again and again and again, because SIWOTI. But I don’t think so, so I’ll tentatively score this as a point against Phil.

On the evidence offered, I don’t see why this goes against Phil. It’s hard to know how lurkers react to discussions on internet forums or blogs in any systematic way. Yes, there are anecdotes everyone can dredge up, whether it’s the person who was forwarded PZ’s shredding of some creationist and thereby became pro-evolution, or the creationist who was almost convinced to switch thanks to careful and polite interaction, only to be scared off when someone started name-calling. Absent more comprehensive data, I don’t see how this argues either way. In some cases this effect might work, in others it’ll backfire, but how can we say more than that?

So I think that Phil scores on all points (points raised by someone generally supportive, note). If I’m wrong, say so in the comments. If I’m right, say so in the comments, too, but do it really nicely so the folks who think I’m wrong will change their minds.

Comments

  1. #1 Marion Delgado
    July 14, 2010

    For the record its dubious phil plait would mean pz. and certainly not in an existential sense.

    so the blogosphere is off base as usual.

    and that’s a clue, because you can be dicks collectively where you wouldn’t be individually.

    Almost no one is more critical of, e.g., the New Atheists than Chris Hedges, and he rarely picks out a person to diss as a pure dick – he thinks we can all be dicks, and are most likely to be when we are sure we never can be.

    “Don’t be a dick” doesn’t mean “kill yourself” so people should realize it’s behavioral advice. It would also sell religion and any number of things better if people weren’t being dicks about it.

    It comes up in context of skepticism because the most activist skepticism is in a minority facing a tough audience, and because the skeptic community is pretty insular, and the tendency to groupthink there makes reinforcement of dickiness occur pretty frequently.

  2. #2 Marion Delgado
    July 14, 2010

    My hope is that someday this will all be moot. That scientific insight and rational morality and so on will be seen as so obviously good that people will steal them from us. I agree with PZ et al. to the degree that you should be free to experiment with a broad range of tactics. And I disagree with the framing “frame” to the extent that it can be like a business concentrating on marketing and advertising instead of product.

  3. #3 David
    July 15, 2010

    Was this book for sale at TAM? Just wondering…

    The Greatest Hoax on Earth? Refuting Dawkins on Evolution (2010) by Jonathan Sarfati
    http://creation.com/the-greatest-hoax-on-earth/main.php

  4. #4 Matti K.
    July 15, 2010

    In the marketplace of ideas, all kind of ideas are expressed, in all kind of ways. Individuals either embrace these ideas fully, to a certain degree or reject them totally.

    One can give marketing tips, of course, but it is unfruitful to use slurs (like “dick”) to describe those who do not appreciate your advice.

    Religious people are generally not utterly stupid and their basic logic is sound. Since there are obvious contradictions between the mainstream religious beliefs and science, and obvious pressure to choose rises. IMHO, it is these contradictions that prohibit religious people to embrace science, not because some outspoken atheists ridicule their beliefs.

    Now, those trying to market science “softly” to religious people should try to produce conclusive substantive arguments for compatibility of science and religion. I don’t think they have succeeded very well. In any case, demonizing and othering the “new atheists” is useless.

  5. #5 SimonC
    July 15, 2010

    Just paraphrasing you from an earlier post, Josh.
    “My favorite part of the report above on “God in Science?” is when the Christian comments that the “God” he believed in was “real and relevant.” The reason is pretty simple. It was a comforting delusion. It fitted what the Christian wanted. I think the term for a Christian who believes in an interventionist deity is “all hat and no cattle.”
    Reporter Grant Stinchfield has just as little right to retain his job title. He concludes the report by insisting: “No one knows for sure if the mysterious creator is the God of the Bible or not.” Of course we do. Gods don’t exist, and the beliefs in question here are obviously imaginary (or deceptive). If he talked to anyone who knows anything about reality or about science – a scientist, a truthful observer, a mammalogist, a member of North Texas Skeptics – he could have actually informed viewers, rather than just making himself look like a buffoon.”

    My question is: Do you have a seperate set of rules for Christians or is my tone in the above an acceptable form of dealing with religion? Am I (and by extension you) being a dick?

    Small groups of delusional people are easy to ridicule, yes, and large groups are not. But does that mean that we stop treating idiots like idiots just ‘cos there’s a lot of them?

    You seem to be giving the religious a special exemption when you show your support for Phil. I admire and respect both of you but on this issue I think that PZ has it right: the respectful tone has been done to death in regards to the religious. They just see it as approval and acceptance of their views. ‘New Atheists’ aren’t being dicks, or bullies, or intolerant. We’ve come to the realization that pandering to the obvious idiocies of religion in the hope of respectful dialogue DOESN’T work. We now just state the facts, as you did with the chupacabra believers – ‘No, what you believe is wrong AND very stupid. Choosing to be stupid is harmful to yourself and others. Now stop it’.

    And before you present any arguments about religion being a ‘useful foolishness’ or ‘a comfort’ remember that those functions of belief function just as well if the believer just shuts up and lives their life that way WITHOUT dragging other people’s behaviour into the discussion.

    Try the thought experiment: Can I believe Christian teachings and live my life accordingly, without impinging on the lives of others. There are two answers to that. The first is ‘yes’ and it comes from the Christians that you seem to encounter – the harmless, friendly, loving types who wouldn’t dream of forcing their opinion on anyone, ‘cos they have a personal relationship with God and it’s nobody elses business. The second answer is less comfortable and more prevalent – ‘No’, because everyone is God’s creation, and God has a plan (and rules) for us all. This version of Christianity (or other religion) is the one that is always messing with curriculae, banning homosexual marriage, hating ‘abortionists’ and generally being tools to their fellow human beings.

    Your, and Phil’s, idea that we could somehow find common ground with these people in the second group is based on your contact with the first group. Ain’t gonna happen. They are the chupacabra believers, and the sooner you realize that you’re dealing with two separate groups, the better things will be. Just don’t expect the first group to help you with the second – they despise each other and consider each other to be betrayers of the faith.

    Oh, and you an Phil are NICE – which is a good thing, but it doesn’t prepare you for the NOT NICE tactics that the religious crowd (group 2) will regularly employ.

    Enough for now, I’ll post once I have an answer about whether being a dick to minorities is better than being a dick to majorities.

  6. #6 arensb
    July 15, 2010
    Point against Phil (but provisionally; see below).

    I can’t endorse this one. First, the analogy to civil rights movements is deeply flawed, and goes unargued here.

    You’ll have to forgive me for that. When I wrote “(but provisionally; see below)”, it was eight or nine o’clock, but by the time I finished the post it was close to three a.m. and I simply couldn’t add the caveats and discussion that I wanted to.

    I’ve got a follow-up post in mind about the difference between forthrightness and dickishness, but I haven’t had a chance to write it yet.

  7. #7 SteveC
    July 15, 2010
  8. #8 Mike from Ottawa
    July 15, 2010

    In any case, demonizing and othering the “new atheists” is useless.

    Ironic, as the distinctive feature of the ‘new atheists’ is that they demonize and ‘other’ everyone except their fellow ‘new atheists’. They refer to the religious as ‘delusional’ and “idiots” (SimonC above) and to those atheists who aren’t positively hostile to the religious as “appeasers”. Only other ‘new atheists’ are anything but nuts or intellectually dishonest in the ‘new atheist’ view.

    The ‘new atheism’ is certainly a good way to energize the base, though it does so by adopting methods that are not based in reason and evidence but which methods work just as well and in the same way when others use inculcate homophobia or racism as they do when ‘new atheists’ use them to spread atheism.

  9. #9 skeptifem
    July 15, 2010

    Blaming civil rights groups for the racism that politicians pushed is total bs. The reason those things passed is because racist people agreed with and supported it. It isn’t a “point to phil” that politicians did what they were going to do ANYWAY. Are you unaware of how the FBI followed MLK around because they were so worried about him as a danger (or a possible communist)? It isn’t like MLK was the antidote to racism and malcolm x undid a bunch of his work, and that politicians would stop doing what the racist public wanted if only everyone had just been nicer. You are predicting an alternate future in deciding that history supports phil’s theory.

    Are you unaware of the COINTELPRO program where the FBI illegally harassed and in some cases murdered civil rights leaders? Simply wanting rights for women and minorities made these people dangerous in the eyes of the government. What we think is mild and civil today was considered extreme and uncivil long ago, the transition happened because people were willing to stick their necks out and deal with the consequences of that. If discourse was always kept within civil bounds there would be no civil rights. What we consider civility to be has gendered and racist elements that still remain.

    Women were called man haters, ugly, lesbians, etc no matter how nice they were. Look at suffrage political cartoons sometime. The most civil sounding feminists got the exact same treatment as the author of the S.C.U.M. manifesto. You give another bs point to phil while being completely ignorant of the history of feminism. You should read up on it before you decide.

    You are saying that if only we had asked nicely to stop being oppressed, it would have happened. History disagrees with you. It also angers me to be told that I should be nice when I ask for someone to remove their boot from my neck. Screw that noise. I am angry and it is a perfectly normal reaction to the situation. If someone finds my tone or my anger is reason to keep oppressing me, then they weren’t really interested in being fair in the first place.

  10. #10 SimonC
    July 15, 2010

    Mike from Ottawa:
    My use of the term ‘idiots’ is accurate. If you’d like to coin a new term for someone who has seen the evidence but refuses to accept it on ideological grounds, I’m all for it and would help you promote it. Unfortunately we don’t have that term as yet so consider my usage of ‘idiot’ as a placemarker for ‘I know this stuff is true but I don’t want it to be so’.

    As an aside, ‘idiot’ is the least offensive term that could be used. Maybe I could use ‘Anti-American’ or ‘Murderer’ or ‘Baby-Killer’ or ‘the damned’… but those terms have all been taken by Christian Fundamentalists to describe people like… you. That’s right, while you spend your time defending one group of these idiots the other group is condemning your behaviour as ‘godless’. You are already a voice they will not hear. In their perfect world YOU would be in jail for not denying the facts and not loving the jebus enough. Don’t believe it? Ask a fundamentalist. They’d change LAWS to make sure you’re SAVED.

    PS: By disagreeing with me you are being a dick. Annoying, isn’t it?

  11. #11 Norwegian Shooter
    July 15, 2010

    The unaddressed main question, in terms of promoting evolution is: Are the “New Atheists” dicks? If you think so, show an example and argue it hurt the promotion of evolution. If not, then Phil’s speech doesn’t apply. Instead you go off on tangents like:

    “I am not aware of any consistent agreement about what the criteria for success would be among the “New Atheists.””

    There isn’t one. What’s your point? Unless there is a metric the activity is without merit? (interesting to note that this is the view of modern business and military theory) Or, take a worthwhile goal in your mind (as I said evolution acceptance would be perfect for you), and argue how the New Atheists impacted that goal. Whether they are dicks or not.

    PS You’re a dick! (just kidding, I literally couldn’t resist)

  12. #12 Cheryl Shepherd-Adams
    July 15, 2010

    Whether one is or is not a dick should seem to depend on the purpose of the interaction.

    If the purpose is to persuade fence-sitters to your point of view, you’re probably better off not being a dick. Basic principle of human interaction.

    If your purpose is to mobilize allies, being a dick would seem to be the better option. Just beware that same mobilization can work to invigorate the opposition as well.

    If you have to deal with those who won’t possibly change their minds or behaviors, just be yourself. Whatever that might be.

  13. #13 Sheldon Helms
    July 15, 2010

    Frankly, I’m disgusted by what masochists most of the TAM attendees turned out to be. “Tell us again how we’re all assholes and how we’re doing it wrong, and we’ll give you a standing ovation for it!” Pathetic.

    This is becoming a trend, too. I heard Sam Harris do the same thing a few years ago in DC, at the Atheists Alliance Int’l annual … See Moreconference (telling us that we’re fools for using the term “atheist’), but at least he got some static for it from the audience and from some of the other speakers. When Phil Plait was finished admonishing everyone, saying the same thing a million different ways, people pounded their hands raw, and I couldn’t hep wondering, “What the hell is wrong with you people? He just told you you’re all dicks!”

    But, perhaps each of you thinks you’re in a different category? When you hear Plait or others spouting this rhetoric, do you think to yourselves, “Oh yes, the others are dicks. I’m one of the elite few who do this skepticism thing the RIGHT way.”? I suppose there are a million ways to drink this Kool Aid, but I for one am not thirsty, thank you very much.

    The true hypocrisy is that the keynote speaker for TAM8 was Richard Dawkins. Why use one of the most outspoken people in the atheist movement to put butts in the seats, and then schedule speakers who are going to harangue us about what dicks WE are? It makes little sense to me. Was Plait not brave enough to call out Dawkins personally? He wouldn’t be the first, of course, but it would be more interesting and effective if he complained to the man who gets more press than all of us put together, rather than griping for a half-hour to a bunch of people paying for his trip to Vegas.

    Personally, I think there’s room for ALL approaches in skepticism and in atheism. Some people are generally assholish and need to be treated like the assholes they are (e.g., Sylvia Browne). Others are simply deluded, and need to be approached as victims as much as anything else (e.g., Ted Haggard), and still others are just uneducated and require information given to them in a palatable manner (e.g., my students). But believe me, if we take the pussy way out and act all Gandhi and shit, we’re going to LOSE this battle for critical thinking. There’s no need to always wield information like a weapon all the time, but we also need to keep in mind that pacifists don’t win wars…whether they’re right or not.

  14. #14 Mike McRae
    July 16, 2010

    To echo what Cheryl said in #12, it all depends on your goal. Sadly, there are a lot of rationalists who have no idea what their goal is. Change minds? Make the world different? Self-gratification? Who knows? It’s all gut reaction and post-hoc justification of their actions.

    If you’ve got something of a goal, it pays to act in an informed manner and then evaluate to see if you were effective. Acting like a dick might be great if you’re only wanting to make yourself feel good, or if you want to rally the already-converted and have a big celebration about how good it is to feel smart. But to change how people think…that demands a bit of effort.

    See http://bit.ly/chnmNf for a more researched position on the role of ridicule in outreach.

  15. #15 Dyz
    July 16, 2010

    This bunch of pussies motivates me to become an even bigger dick. Soft healers make wounds stink.

  16. #16 Norwegian Shooter
    July 16, 2010

    Perfectly on topic, Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic discussing the NAACP resolution calling for the Tea Parties to disown the racists in its midst:

    I have, in my writing, a tendency to become theoretically cute, and overly enamored with my own fair-mindedness. Such vanity has lately been manifested in the form of phrases like “it’s worth saying” and “it strikes me that…” or “respectfully…”. When engaging your adversaries, that approach has its place. But it’s worth saying that there are other approaches and other places. Among them–respectfully administering the occasional reminder as to the precise nature of the motherfuckers you are dealing with. It strikes me that this is a most appropriate role for the nation’s oldest civil rights organization.

    Amen, brother.

  17. #17 Josh Rosenau
    July 16, 2010

    I’ll repeat here the comment I made Arensburger’s post that I scrabbled together after my original was lost in the ethersphere:

    There’s (at least) one relevant distinction that I don’t see being made and it’s forcing a false dichotomy in discussions of this matter. That’s an appropriate view of the various potential targets of snark and ridicule. The real question is not ‘To be a dick or not to be a dick?’, it’s ‘Who should we call idiots and when should we do it and what else should we say when we do?’

    In my interactions with ‘regular’ people about these kinds of issues I keep the snark and ridicule at a low level because I’m mostly interested in the conversation continuing on the chance that something will get through. However, I think people like Ken Ham and Casey Luskin deserve all the snark it’s possible to generate. That’s for a couple of reasons.

    First, it transmits the clear message that one holds them in contempt, and it’s less than honest to treat a Ken Ham the same as I treat a local creationist with whom I’m talking about these things.

    Second, the public contempt is tactically potentially useful if it’s well executed and not merely name calling. Rather, say, than calling Casey Luskin an ignoramus and leaving it at that, one calls him an ignoramus and then shows exactly why that’s so using the appropriate evidence. The audience here is not Casey, of course, it’s the lurkers.

    And the lurkers are real. In years as a moderator and then administrator of (the late lamented) Internet Infidels Discussion Board and now as a contributor to Panda’s Thumb (as well as being a local activist in these matters), I’ve received a fair amount of private feedback from lurkers, so they’re really out there reading and learning. It’s been a revelation to me how many there are in this conservative rural county where the Freshwater affair has been running for two years now. I hear from them every week, and you know what? Snark directed at the leaders and advisers that have been driving that situation hasn’t put them off; in fact, it seems I’m saying what they want to. The hard core supporters are offended, of course, but the vast middle ground of moderates does not appear to be at all offended, put off, or driven into the fundamentalists’ corner by it.

    So in my less than humble opinion the appropriate targets of snark are the leaders, the con men (and women), scammers and leeches who are pitching (and being paid for) the woo. The audience we’re addressing is not them but is the lurkers and lay audiences, and for them the snark at leaders has to be accompanied by reasons why the snark is appropriate.

    Or put more succinctly, I like “That guy you’re listening to is a moron and here’s exactly why” rather than “He’s a moron” or (what’s worse) “You’re a moron.” So Phil’s ‘To dick or not to dick’ representation doesn’t take into consideration what I see as an effective mode of operation.

  18. #18 UncaYimmy
    July 16, 2010

    I wasn’t there, so I have to ask: Where’s the evidence? I don’t think the JREF has much to offer because as far as I can tell they do little else but make money off of preaching to the choir. I don’t see them getting their hands dirty by actually dealing head-on with the other side. I will say that Mr. Randi could certainly be considered a dick, and that attitude is what got him to where he is.

    The problem with this “don’t be a dick” attitude is that it results in school boards treating evolution and ID as if there’s two sides to the story. It ends up with the press referring to the “debate” about the safety of vaccines when there really is just one side to the story: the facts.

    Every time we treat “woo” in a gentle manner, we’re sending the meta-message that it’s not a big deal and/or that the other side has a point. That’s a mistake. If you look at the success of talking heads and political pundits, they succeed by having strong, provocative viewpoints. It gets people talking, and that, ultimately, is a good thing.

    That’s not to say there’s no room for the kindler, gentler approach, but the reality is we have enough of that as it is. There’s no shortage of “peacemakers” in world of skeptics, but where’s the evidence of their overwhelming success that tells us there’s no room for dicks? Sure, it works under the right circumstances, but so does being a dick.

    Skeptics shouldn’t worry about offending people. Religious evangelists don’t, and look at their success. The message needs to be strong and consistent. While it’s seldom a good idea to go out of your way for an insult, speaking your mind is the honest, rational approach. Bystanders sit up and take notice when there’s a heated argument. And when it comes to public debate, it’s the lookers-on that matter, not the opponent.

    It’s silly to me to think that Phil, riding on the success of skeptics and critical thinking, is now telling people they need to do it differently. That just makes no sense.

  19. #19 Dr. Matthew
    July 18, 2010

    I’m going to argue a different point than some of the previous posts, mostly just b/c as a gay man, social scientist with a focus on stigma, and activist, I take quite a bit of umbrage at the illogical claim that the ACT UP action at St. Patrick’s Cathedral was unimportant or hurt gay rights in the longrun. I was, to be honest, much too young to have been involved, but have since made friends with men who were there, and the video of it has always brought tears to my eyes. Sometimes, symbolic actions are important to change a dialogue. The depraved, inhuman behavior of parts of the Catholic Church in the early AIDS crisis wasn’t exactly a point of mainstream media debate over the news hour, and while the moderate, “decent” approach was to be empathic while pretending not to notice a disparaged minority group was the primary group affected (anyone else remember the AIDS episode of 21 Jump Street? Don’t hate, maybe he’s just a hemophiliac!), there’s wasn’t much public talk of the bigotry going on. The actions that Queer Nation and ACT UP took were a great deal of what motivated myself, as a 30 year old, and many younger than I am to do that coming out you so correctly note is a more accurate precursor of change. It takes models of integrity, courage in the face of persecution, and pride in disavowing and reframing debates that are mired in the gutter, and frankly I think it’s quite extreme to assume that without those radical actions of the 90s, after the mass die-offs of a few generation of gay men, that we’d have any gay rights movement happening today. Treating the modern trend of outness as if it occurred in a vacuum and with no history is, to say the least, an empirical failure.

    Phil 0, ACT UP 1

  20. #20 Bing
    July 19, 2010

    There is a time and a place to be a complete dick-twat, in my opinion. Treating, say, Sylvia Browne with anything but the most object scorn and derision would be completely dishonest of me. Cancer quacks too. I think that few feeling people would go after the people who fall prey to those who leech off of the despairing–for most people, I think that those people’s safety and rights are of the utmost concern to skeptics! (I said it with an exclamation mark, so it must be true.) Maybe I am deluding myself, which is always possible. But I don’t think so.

    HJ

  21. #21 RBH
    July 19, 2010

    Having tried daily to make this comment since the post went up and getting a “Permission denied” error every damned time, I’ll try just one more time.

    There’s (at least) one relevant distinction that I don’t see being made clearly and it’s forcing a false dichotomy in discussions of this matter. That’s an appropriate view of the various potential targets of snark and ridicule. The real question is not ‘To be a dick or not to be a dick?’, it’s ‘Who should we call idiots and when should we do it and what else should we say when we do?’ (Yeah, I know it’s three questions, but it’s all in one sentence.)

    In my interactions with ‘regular’ people about these kinds of issues I keep the snark and ridicule at a low level because I’m mostly interested in the conversation continuing on the chance that something will get through. However, I think people like Ken Ham and Casey Luskin deserve all the snark it’s possible to generate. That’s for a couple of reasons.

    First, it transmits the clear message that one holds them in contempt, and it’s less than honest to treat a Ken Ham the same as I treat a local creationist with whom I’m talking about these things.

    Second, the public contempt is tactically potentially useful if it’s well executed and not merely name calling. Rather, say, than calling Casey Luskin an ignoramus and leaving it at that, one calls him an ignoramus and then shows exactly why that’s so using the appropriate evidence. The audience here is not Casey, of course, it’s the lurkers.

    And the lurkers are real. In years as a moderator and then administrator of (the late lamented) Internet Infidels Discussion Board and now as a contributor to Panda’s Thumb (as well as being a local activist in these matters), I’ve received a fair amount of private feedback from lurkers, so they’re really out there reading and learning. It’s been a revelation to me how many there are in this conservative rural county where the Freshwater affair has been running for two years now. I hear from them every week, and you know what? Snark directed at the leaders and advisers that have been driving that situation hasn’t put them off; in fact, it seems I’m saying what they want to. The hard core supporters are offended, of course, but the vast middle ground of moderates does not appear to be at all offended, put off, or driven into the fundamentalists’ corner by it.

    So in my less than humble opinion the appropriate targets of snark are the leaders, the con men (and women), scammers and leeches who are pitching (and being paid for) the woo. The audience we’re addressing is not them but is the lurkers and lay audiences, and for them the snark at leaders has to be accompanied by reasons why the snark is appropriate.

    Or put more succinctly, I like “That guy you’re listening to is a moron and here’s exactly why” rather than “He’s a moron” or (what’s worse) “You’re a moron.” So Phil’s ‘To dick or not to dick’ representation doesn’t take into consideration what I have found to be an effective mode of operation.

  22. #22 Seth Manapio
    July 25, 2010

    Sam Harris isn’t a dick. Neither, for that matter, is Daniel Dennet. Dawkins is debatable, as is Christopher Hitchens. Personally, I don’t think Hedges is a dick, particularly, at least not compared to some.

    PZ can be a dick.

    ‘Being a Dick’ doesn’t mean telling people that you think they’re wrong and you’re right. Look at the example behaviors Phil Plait cites: Screaming. Calling people retarded. Calling people retarded, brain-damaged, etc.

    Has Daniel Dennet ever called anyone stupid for believing in God? What about Harris? Hell, what about Hitch? As far as I know, this is not part of their rhetoric. When Dawkins uses the word ‘delusion’ he is striving for accuracy, not insult: the suggestion is that children, specifically, have a fraudulent belief foisted upon them which they then carry for their entire lives. This isn’t a personal insult.

    You don’t have to be a dick in order to be clear that you are right and someone else is wrong beyond any reasonable doubt, and being clear that you believe that you are right and someone else is wrong is not equivalent to being a dick.

  23. #23 vera
    August 15, 2010

    Simon said: “Try the thought experiment: Can I believe Christian teachings and live my life accordingly, without impinging on the lives of others. There are two answers to that. The first is ‘yes’ and it comes from the Christians that you seem to encounter – the harmless, friendly, loving types who wouldn’t dream of forcing their opinion on anyone, ‘cos they have a personal relationship with God and it’s nobody elses business. The second answer is less comfortable and more prevalent – ‘No’, because everyone is God’s creation, and God has a plan (and rules) for us all. This version of Christianity (or other religion) is the one that is always messing with curriculae, banning homosexual marriage, hating ‘abortionists’ and generally being tools to their fellow human beings.”

    Well, that’s cuz Christians too are divided into those who are, and are not, dicks. ;-)

  24. #24 Jeremy
    November 16, 2010

    Yeah, when I wrote my recent critique of the skeptic community, I wasn’t really going after Randi, except to point out the bad example he’s setting.

    Basically, the community has learned how to be bullies.

    That doesn’t mean I regard every skeptic as a bully (even if they contradict me, oh noes!) but there is a mean streak a mile wide. It comes across loud and clear. You guys – not the people here, necessarily, but collectively – need easy prey to get your thrills.

    http://areyoutargeted.com/2010/11/are-james-randis-followers-a-community-of-newbie-gankers/