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:
- People seem to be getting meaner, and skeptics in particular are getting meaner about debunking things.
- “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]”
- Research indicates that it’s hard to debunk a claim and have the person being corrected actually remember the right answer.
- 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.
- Given the challenges of overcoming irrational belief, why make that work harder?
- is your goal to score a cheap point, or is your goal to win the damn game?
- 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.