On dickishness

Not to reopen raw wounds, but reposting my talk from Netroots Nation reminded me of two other sessions I attended, both on the theme of snark and satire. Unfortunately, video from the one I want to talk about today is not yet online.

As you’ll recall, sciencebloggers and skeptics were really bored over the summer, and to pass the time they got into a fight over whether it was good or bad to be dickish. Those who said “no,” generally argued that there’s no particular evidence that such behavior is effective at convincing people to join your cause and the peer reviewed literature found dickish behavior to be a turnoff for audiences, while non-dickish behavior was more effective. Those who said “yes,” tended to argue that a) you’re the real dick, b) I have anecdotal evidence which refutes your peer reviewed studies and c) The Daily Show and other satire can be powerful tools for an activist.

I obviously tend to side with the first camp, and to find counterarguments a & b unconvincing. Argument c is intriguing. I would note that the identifiable leaders of the “dickishness is ok” camp are not comedians or professional satirists and that this tends to make their satire less effective than Stewart or Swift. But that’s not an argument against their point in principle. What if they really were funny?

Because the Netroots Nation panel consisted of people from sites like Pandagon and Sadly, No! and The ‘Toot, I didn’t think they would know about or want to get into the specifics of the “Don’t Be A Dick” fight. Instead, after they talked about their opinion of the best targets for satire and snark (short answer: the powerful, especially those who abuse power), I asked whether there were targets that were inappropriate for snark or satire. And remarkably for a group of snarky liberals, they all basically agreed: snark and satire are inappropriate to use against those weaker than yourself, or indeed those who are weak in society. Which seems like a broad endorsement of “Don’t Be A Dick.”

It leaves room for snark and satire, but doesn’t allow “it was satire” to be an all-purpose excuse. Those are tools for the powerless to use against the powerful. So it’s one thing to deploy snark against, say, the Pope, another to deploy it against Iranian mullahs, and quite different to direct it against an imam in lower Manhattan. And never mind a Muslim cab driver or a Catholic janitor. Or, as the right wing loves to do, a ten year old kid who is sick and got a shout out from the President.

To my mind, this division between the powerful and the powerless is vital to the “don’t be dickish” perspective, and to the differences of opinion around it.

When I started blogging in 2004, blogs were barely powerful, and scienceblogs had no power. Bloggers, including SB’s Nick Anthis, claimed some scalps thanks to their reporting, and by 2010, blogging is not powerless, per se. I wouldn’t be surprised if this blog wasn’t part of what got Nancy Boyda elected in 2006, along with a pro-evolution Kansas Board of Education. Blogs have brought down Senators, won major journalism awards, and (if journalists are to be believed) have singlehandedly destroyed print journalism. Howard Fineman just left Newsweek to be an editor at Huffington Post.

Bloggers who started as the powerless have to adjust their thinking now that they are among the powerful. PZ Myers, who used to regard a profile by a local newspaper as major media exposure, was just profiled in Playboy! He has a massive readership and huge cultural reach. He cannot be considered powerless. Snark which would once have been directed at those with more power than him now is hitting those less powerful, and his changing status requires him to change tactics. With great power comes great responsibility.

Where this gets tricky is with criticism of, mockery of, satire about, or snark toward, religion or some specific religion. It’s not hard to get a sense of how powerful the Pope is, nor how powerful some Muslim cab driver might be. But how powerful is Catholicism globally? Catholicism in Ireland? Catholicism in the US? Religion globally? Religion in the US? Religion in science departments at elite research universities? In mocking a religious belief, is one also mocking every person who holds that belief? There’s no question that religion in general, and quite a few specific religions, have a lot of power in society at large. This is true in the US, with its religious majority and legal commitment to separation of church and state, and it’s true in Sweden, with its nonreligious majorities and state religion (until ten years ago). So mocking religion should be fair game. (But note that religion is not powerful in academia, so maybe that means that religion in academia deserves a gentler sort of criticism. Maybe not! Take it to the comments.)

But mocking religious beliefs often shades into, or can seem as if it shades into, mocking people who hold those religious beliefs. And while some of those people hold power, others don’t. Indeed, the powerlessness of certain groups of religious adherent against religious ideas is a common theme in atheist writings (whether “new” atheist or old atheist). That is to say, most religious adherents were never tabulae rasae, and belong to their religion because of the power religion holds in their family, in society at large, etc. Attacking people for holding such beliefs in general means attacking some of the most defenseless people in society: the old, the poorly-educated, children, the brainwashed, etc. Those who perform the brainwashing deserve satire and more, but simply accepting certain lessons from a source which seemed credible but isn’t ? that’s not grounds for mockery. Those are victims. Mock Ken Ham, but don’t mock people for listening to him. His audience is powerless, and that’s why they listen to him.

It is not inherently dickish to mock religion, or to mock religious doctrines, but that mockery, snark, or satire, ought to be done in a way that lets adherents separate themselves a little bit from what’s being mocked or satirized. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is brilliant satire in many ways, but it doesn’t do anything for a lot of religious adherents but make them feel that their beliefs are being mocked. This fails the “don’t be dickish” criterion, and also fails to give religious adherents any reason to cross the aisle and join in anti-creationist or anti-religious authoritarian activities.

The upshot, then, is that snark and satire can be used against religion without accusations of dickishness. But using snark and satire in ways that implicitly or explicitly attacks people for believing those claims is dickish. If those beliefs are abusive or harmful, then adherents should be treated as victims. And if the beliefs are not harmful or abusive, then it seems inherently dickish to interfere in such a personal matter.

NB: This debate started with a talk by Phil Plait which borrowed the phrase “Don’t Be A Dick” from Wil Wheaton’s blog. This, unfortunately, led to a focus on whether certain people are dicks, when the issue is whether certain behaviors are dickish, and therefore whether those behaviors are or are not helpful in achieving broadly shared goals. Hence my shift from “don’t be a dick” to “don’t be dickish.”

Comments

  1. #1 Avenel
    September 23, 2010

    The problem is, even the mildest actions are interpreted as dickish. The milktoast ‘Don’t beleive in god?’ billboard was universally decried as strident in San Diego.

  2. #2 Nick Matzke
    September 23, 2010

    ‘I would note that the identifiable leaders of the “dickishness is ok” camp are comedians or professional satirists’

    …did you mean “aren’t”?

  3. #3 Josh Rosenau
    September 24, 2010

    Thanks Nick, good catch.

  4. #4 Elf Eye
    September 24, 2010

    You conclude your post by stating that “snark and satire can be used against religion without accusations of dickishness. But using snark and satire in ways that implicitly or explicitly attacks people for believing those claims is dickish.” However, this is the proverbial distinction without a difference. It you satirize religious claims, the implication is that people who believe those claims are mistaken, and that will inevitably put some adherents on the defensive. You illustrate that fact yourself when you write that the Flying Spaghetti Monster, while “brilliant satire in many ways…doesn’t do anything for a lot of religious adherents but make them feel that their beliefs are being mocked.” Yes, their beliefs are being mocked–that’s “snark and satire [being] used against religion”, supposedly alright in your book–but simultaneously some adherents may take the satire personally–not alright in your book. In short, you have created an impossible standard for the satirist by asserting that it is acceptable to satirize religion but only if adherents do not feel ridiculed, for any satire of religious beliefs will be viewed by at least some adherents as “implicitly” an attack upon them personally.

  5. #5 abb3w
    September 24, 2010

    Josh Rosenau: the peer reviewed literature found dickish behavior to be a turnoff for audiences

    [Citations Needed]
    Also, “turnoff” is not the same as “ineffective at changing position”.

    Josh Rosenau: And remarkably for a group of snarky liberals, they all basically agreed: snark and satire are inappropriate to use against those weaker than yourself, or indeed those who are weak in society. Which seems like a broad endorsement of “Don’t Be A Dick.”

    Even if one grants the validity of this particular OUGHT-consensus, YEC Christians comprise circa 30% of the US Population, leaving (as you note) “weak in society” dubious.

    Josh Rosenau: It is not inherently dickish to mock religion, or to mock religious doctrines, but that mockery, snark, or satire, ought to be done in a way that lets adherents separate themselves a little bit from what’s being mocked or satirized. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is brilliant satire in many ways, but it doesn’t do anything for a lot of religious adherents but make them feel that their beliefs are being mocked.

    I suspect this involves on one hand the inability to distinguish insult and ridicule (for both speakers and audience) – see (doi:10.1037/0022-0663.73.5.722) – and on the other the failure of multiple european languages (and thus, their native speakers) to distinguish within the genitive/possessive case between the intrinsic, extrinsic, and relational possessive – see Larry Niven’s “Grammar Lesson” for some edutainment.

    Of course, it’s not clear whether intrinsic, extrinsic, or relational is more appropriate for “my idea”….

  6. #6 Deepak Shetty
    September 24, 2010

    a. there is some dickishness from both sides so while some of the new atheists may behave like dicks , some of the *old*(for lack of a better word) atheists behave like dicks and hypocrites. Its also surprising why this behavioral commentary is not made on religious figures or other accomodationists when they too behave like dicks.
    b. There’s never a clear answer as to why mocking a religious belief is behaving like a dick. As to why calling rapists as rapists is behaving like a dick. As to why telling the truth as opposed to sugar coating it is behaving like a dick. Its so because Phil Plait/Josh Rosenau/Chris Mooney think so?

  7. #7 Pierce R. Butler
    September 24, 2010

    … mockery, snark, or satire, ought to be done in a way that lets adherents separate themselves a little bit from what’s being mocked or satirized.

    Hey churchgoers! You can sleep in on Sunday mornings!

    Now, let’s have a show of hands as to who thinks Cain & Seth stuck it to their mama, and who thinks they just stuck with their sisters…

  8. #8 J. J. Ramsey
    September 24, 2010

    abb3w: “[Citations Needed]”

    Citation provided:

    A 1992 communications study by a leading researcher in the field of aggression and communication — Dominic Infante — looked into situations where argumentativeness and verbal aggression occurred together, and found that the more aggressive the speaker, the less credible they were deemed to be and less able to appear to present a valid argument[11]. Other studies have found that third party observers of arguments perceive greater levels of aggression and less credibility of parties who engage in even ‘light’ aggressive tactics[12]. Another study investigating argument progression within paired speakers found verbal aggression was inversely associated with the proportion of arguments[13]. Far from being conducive to discussions on controversial issues, aggressive language reduces desire for verbal interaction and impedes the depth of what is being discussed.

    This and more from http://tribalscientist.wordpress.com/2010/07/15/a-ridiculous-essay-on-rational-outreach/

  9. #9 Mike McRae
    September 25, 2010

    While I’m pleased that this topic has been taken up in discussion as an important issue by some, it’s disappointing that it doesn’t seem to progress very far. Instead, the same points which have been chewed on like week-old gristle are still thrown out there.

    The first problem is definition. The term ‘dick’ was effective at attracting discussion, yet initially wasn’t provided with a strict meaning. This left it as a subjective interpretation, allowing for ludicrious accusations of ‘anything can be perceived as dickish’. Now, I say it’s ludicrous not because it is itself false, but that the entire topic is obviously targeted on the intent of the communicator and not on the interpretation of the audience. Evidently the definition is about the intentions of communication rather than accidental misunderstanding.

    In any case, there has been number of people (myself included) who have defined the topic as ‘don’t communicate with the intention of creating a sense of shame, embarrassment or intimidation in your audience’. Far simpler and less subjective.

    Now the question is ‘why not?’. This depends on the goal of the communication. Research shows if it is to consolidate a ‘team’, to make your belief represent a social group, or to simply make those who share your belief feel good about themselves, ridicule, mockery, satire etc. works well. In some situations this pressure might be deemed suitable. In situations where the aim is to change either a primary or secondary audience’s epistemology, to educate or convey novel information, it’s at best useless and at worst polarising and damaging.

    The discussion should focus on the goals of science communication, IMO, and seek to support outreach methods with evidence over assertion. Unfortunately the field is full of grass roots bloggers and part time communicators (which is in itself a good thing – don’t get me wrong) who take little time, or demonstrate little desire, for stopping to give such things much thought.

  10. #10 abb3w
    September 25, 2010

    J. J. Ramsey: Citation provided:

    Thank you. I’ll have to track down several of those footnoted papers in dead-tree form, since the local institution seems to lack a on-line subscription to several of those journals. Still, interesting in that it remains consistent with some of my subjective impressions regarding several persuasion resistance methods. (The article doi:10.1207/S15324834BASP2502_5 provides an interesting survey of them).

    I’ll also note from the linked essay:

    For product-driven rationalists, there is some wiggle-room in arguing for the use of ridicule.

    …although I would say “consequentialists” would be a better word than “product-driven rationalists”.

    I also think that essay’s concluding analysis of “many people are far beyond changing their epistemology” has some flaws; notably, the failure to distinguish the probabilities of change via rational appeal (such as argument and counter-argument) versus change induced by appeals not limited purely to rational argument – such as ridicule.

    Overall it makes a clear case that overuse is possible; however, it does not seem to show that current (measured) levels are above the optimal. This seems analogous to economics arguments based on the Laeffer curve to support reduction of taxes from (whatever arbitrary) current level.

  11. #11 J. J. Ramsey
    September 25, 2010

    abb3w: “I also think that essay’s concluding analysis of ‘many people are far beyond changing their epistemology’ has some flaws”

    Um, that was not the essay’s concluding analysis. Here’s a fuller paragraph containing your quote:

    Of course many people are far beyond changing their epistemology and can be expected to indulge in spreading irrational beliefs regardless of any attempts to ‘educate’ them or change their views. Some might argue there is no harm in ridicule in those cases. Yet there are two responses to that – certainty is for politicians and priests (not those of rational minds). How certain can a person ever be that they ‘know’ their audience is permanently beyond reach? There is less harm in simply ignoring a person out of the possibility that one day they might be more inclined to change their values by somebody who is better skilled at communication; and there are always more reasonable third parties who, out of sympathy for your target, might find it difficult to distinguish the reason from your ridicule.

    That’s a caution against the notion that there is no harm in using ridicule against those deemed impossible to change.

    Also, the bit about the “Laeffer curve” doesn’t really make sense. The idea of the Laffer curve is that there is a unimodal function between the level of taxation and government revenue. In the essay, however, there is no similar simple unimodal relationship between, say, level of ridicule and acceptance of one’s claims. Rather, ridicule is somewhat useful in particular contexts and an utter bust in others.

  12. #12 Deepak Shetty
    September 25, 2010

    @Mike McCrae
    “‘don’t communicate with the intention of creating a sense of shame, embarrassment or intimidation in your audience’. Far simpler and less subjective.”
    Still subjective. Why shouldnt shame and embarassment be an intention (we agree on intimidation). For e.g. treatment of women or coverup of child rape. The communication’s intent is to create a sense of shame, no?
    What people who try to have rules like dont be a dick dont realise is everything is situational. Very few reasonable people (including new atheists) go about randomly insulting people. There is a context to everything.

  13. #13 Mike McRae
    September 25, 2010

    How is the intention to cause shame and embarrassment a subjective concept, while intimidation isn’t? From what you’re saying, it seems as if your question is not on the subjectivity of the intention but rather on whether such an intention can be productive; which, as I said, depends on your intention.

    Now, you might not agree that the intention to cause shame and embarrassment constitutes ‘being a dick’, however that’s neither here nor there given the term itself is of no consequence in face of a meaning.

    Oddly, you go on to say it is situational. If you re-read my comment, I agree. If the context is to cause shame with view of making yourself feel better, or to consolidate a sense of togetherness under a shared belief, then indeed, mission accomplished. It does work.

    Otherwise, I question why you’d want somebody to feel shame. I’d hazard a guess that it would be to change behaviour…yet this would be an assertion without merit based more on wishful thinking than a knowledge of education or communication.

  14. #14 beebee
    September 26, 2010

    and this nails on the head why richard dawkins rubs so many people the wrong way , despite having good arguments

  15. #15 Deepak Shetty
    September 26, 2010

    @Mike McRae
    All three are subjective. I ignored intimidation because I agree with you on intimidation.
    Suppose I were to point out to you that by giving up drinking a single soda you could feed a child in Africa every day. The intent is to cause you guilt/shame so that you might act on it right and donate some money? Why is it wrong?
    Hence I would not agree with your statement that arguments designed to cause shame are bad

  16. #16 Mike McRae
    September 26, 2010

    I still don’t see how it is a subjective observation. There is nothing for an observer to subjectively interpret – either an individual admits that they intend to create a sense of shame, or they don’t. An admission of intent isn’t really open to personal interpretation.

    In any case, it’s your second claim that seems to be our point of contention;

    You claim that shame just might lead to the donation of money in a given context; an admirable goal we can agree upon. Yet I’m not questioning whether the ultimate goal in either this case or a rationalist’s case is admirable or not. Again, if you read my post, I’m questioning your assertion that your expected outcome should follow the choice of media (i.e. ridicule).

    This is the problem in science and rationalist outreach – people assume without evidence that shame and ridicule will result in achieving their ‘admirable’ goal of education. When questioned, either there is silence, a deference to personal anecdotes or continued assertions that it is simply true.

  17. #17 Matti K.
    September 27, 2010

    JR: “The Flying Spaghetti Monster is brilliant satire in many ways, but it doesn’t do anything for a lot of religious adherents but make them feel that their beliefs are being mocked. This fails the “don’t be dickish” criterion, and also fails to give religious adherents any reason to cross the aisle and join in anti-creationist or anti-religious authoritarian activities.”

    Then again, it could be that FSM is not a paedagogic project at lla. Satire, almost by definition, is “dickish”. Its purpose, if any, is not to convert those that it offends but to convince those sitting on the fence.

    JR: “But using snark and satire in ways that implicitly or explicitly attacks people for believing those claims is dickish. If those beliefs are abusive or harmful, then adherents should be treated as victims.”

    Why? We are speaking of adult persons, aren’t we? Are people who believe that stealing is a proper way to make a living victims of harmful beliefs?

  18. #18 Deepak Shetty
    September 27, 2010

    @Mike
    “There is nothing for an observer to subjectively interpret”

    I was responding to your original statement of
    “who have defined the topic as ‘don’t communicate with the intention of creating a sense of shame, embarrassment or intimidation in your audience’. ”
    Since you already have a Dont communicate … I assume the *Don’t* is because you think its wrong / bad / ineffective whatever – that’s the subjective part.

    “people assume without evidence that shame and ridicule will result in achieving their ‘admirable’ goal of education.”
    I merely saying it might in some cases just as I’m fairly certain that ridicule wont work in all cases (based on my anecdotal experiences of course). Its the accomodationist side that keeps insisting that ridicule doesnt work or doesnt help (for sure!) without anything to back it up. P.Z. Myers and co are on record stating that they think multiple approaches can be tried(and do support say Eugenie Scott for e.g.) and that they are also in favor of the non – ridicule arguments , we just dont believe that non ridicule is the only valid approach.

  19. #19 Mike McRae
    September 27, 2010

    @Deepak: On the subjectivity comment – fair point. Advising not to use ridicule is indeed subjective to the intent, which has essentially been what I’ve been saying.

    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘for sure!’. I’ve not seen anybody claim certainty on the matter. In fact, I’ve seen the very opposite; a call for evidence to support claims that ridicule works as intended.

    Yes, I do understand that those who support the use of ridicule typically state it should be part of a varied approach. It’s an appeal to seem fair and democratic, but is baseless given it is again based on nothing but assertion and anecdotes.

    On your claim that nobody has presented evidence –

    1) JJ Ramsey in #8 linked to my blog, which has made an effort to look at the topic as objectively as possible. I do recognise ‘as possible’ does not eliminate bias, and I’ve made a call numerous times for those who disagree with my conclusions to provide their own research. The response has been less than overwhelming, I assure you.

    2) There is an element of burden of proof for those who assert that there is a place for ridicule. In a sense, the behaviour demonstrates the original claim that ridicule is useful. On being criticised of it, there is a rather strange call for the criticism to be evidence based, while the behaviour is exempt.

    The claim ‘it takes all forms of communication’ is completely without merit, and is a rather desperate attempt to maintain a form of outreach without needing to consider its true impact. PZ certainly does a good job of building the zealotry of his community, and there is evidence that his mocking approach is good at polarising his audience and consolidating those who share his beliefs and values. If that is his sole goal, than he is successful. Mind you, given I’m more interested in successful outreach, I’m more concerned about the impact such communication has on a diverse audience…which evidence suggests such communication makes it more difficult.

    Again, I’d be happy to discuss evidence to the contrary, but those who wish to continue in their use of mockery as a communication tool are happiest continuing in their assertions that ‘it takes all types’ and avoiding the discussion on evaluating communication. These are the same people who otherwise praise the value of evidence. Sadly, that just means for everybody BUT them.

  20. #20 Deepak Shetty
    September 27, 2010

    “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘for sure!’.”
    Chris Mooney for e.g. is certain that New Atheists harm the communication cause by their stridency / ridicule. On the other hand no New Atheist claims that Eugenie Scott (for e.g.) harms the cause.

    “I’ve made a call numerous times for those who disagree with my conclusions to provide their own research.”
    But the problem is what people say and what they do aren’t the same. Im pretty sure for e.g. that my wife will say ridicule makes her less likely to listen to an argument , but my observation has been that If I ridicule my wifes views Im in trouble but if her high school friends ridicule the same views she is more likely to listen to them. The only way a study would work would be to observe behavioral change not just the answers to a multi part question (and yes this hasnt been done) and would be quite difficult to do.
    Again I can only point out anecdotal evidence , but dont you think John Stewart / Stephen Colbert had some effect during the last election in USA(yes they are professional comedians) but in principle ridicule can work , if you are good enough. Now that doesnt count as research but its easy enough to see that our position has some basis in reality.

    Even the guilt thing is a true anecdote. The person who felt guilty is me , the one who induced that guilt is Peter Singer’s book and the net result is that two children are sponsored via Plan USA.

    I too can make a call which no one has answered. Choose a typical creationist . Convince him by non ridicule , reasoned arguments that he is wrong and if you cant do it, why do you think when ridicule too doesnt work for the same creationist , it’s harmful?

    “2) There is an element of burden of proof for those who assert that there is a place for ridicule.”
    No the burden of proof lies on the people who believe there is no place for ridicule. It is they who assert that ridicule has no effect or is actively harmful.

    Your comments about P Z are unfair since he does sometime produce letters of people who have read him and say that they changed their minds. That should be sufficient evidence that ridicule *can* work which is the only assertion we make.

  21. #21 Mike McRae
    September 27, 2010

    @Deepak. Ah, well I’m not a great fan of Chris Mooney either, so I’m not about to oppose any criticism of his views. If he claims certainty, more the fool he is.

    “But the problem is what people say and what they do aren’t the same.”

    So you’re claiming there can be no evidence? I’m lost here – it sounds as if you’re doing a blanket dismissal of any evidence that could be presented on the grounds that you believe it is based on a person’s own perceptions of how they might react?

    What it appears to be is a special pleading for anecdotes over data, as you presume the data to be innately biased beyond use. No critical evaluation of particular research, no discussion of the evidence – just a blanket dismissal. To be blunt, it’s what I’d expect from any woo who also wishes to special plead anecdotes in support of their conclusion. That’s not me poisoning the well – it’s pointing out a double standard amongst rationalists.

    So you pull out the personal anecdotes and just-so stories which you wouldn’t accept if somebody was trying to convince you of a conclusion you disagreed with. This isn’t demonstrating critical thinking or an understanding of how science works, but rather a defence of a belief you wish to maintain. Again, picture why you’d say anecdotes are a weak form of evidence to somebody using them to claim homeopathy can sometimes work.

    Can ridicule sometimes work in changing an epistemology? I can’t categorically say it can’t. I can criticise it on grounds of personal experience and research, and ask for those who use it to demonstrate why. But from what you’ve shown here, it seems to not be a situation open for critical discussion. We can’t use research, anecdotes are ok and there’s a dogmatic appeal to not having to provide evidence of it working, it’s others who have to prove it’s wrong.

  22. #22 Deepak Shetty
    September 27, 2010

    @Mike McCrae
    “it sounds as if you’re doing a blanket dismissal of any evidence”
    No , just of the multiple choice tests on such topics – People lie , live with it.
    Change of strongly held views isnt an instant decision , it takes time , thought for someone to change his views – its not one big thing usually there are multiple factors, how would you measure this? . Let me put it this way – what experiment would you propose to see if ridicule works – how much ridicule? what is the measure of ridicule?

    I fully understand that anecdotes are not evidence , so I have explicitly made it clear that these are anecdotes. However if for e.g. someone makes an assertion that a human cannot have 6 fingers and I say I have seen such a person are you really saying my anecdote doesnt count? I do not make the claim that ridicule works in all cases or even that it is better than any other technique, just that it works in some – how is an anecdote not valid evidence for that point of view.?
    Your position is that ridicule doesnt work – a single case is sufficient to prove your position wrong. For e.g. if say Hitchens has a view religion poisons everything , then an anecdote where it doesnt is sufficient to prove him wrong no? Do you really need to have exhaustive data?

    “it’s others who have to prove it’s wrong.”
    Right. New Atheists have a right to free speech and can criticise and ridicule whoever they please. Accomodationists are free to not use ridicule and use polite arguments. Who exactly is starting this “you shouldn’t do it this way!” ?. You make the claim , you prove it.

    “it seems to not be a situation open for critical discussion.”
    Right. Thats why Im bothering to reply. And I for one have yet to accuse you of double standards.

  23. #23 Mike McRae
    September 28, 2010

    @Deepak

    “No , just of the multiple choice tests on such topics”

    I’m not sure where there has been a ‘multiple choice test’ study. You’ve not cared to explore the research presented, in other words, and merely presumed that they are some sort of multiple choice survey? Specifically which of the studies to which do you refer?

    “However if for e.g. someone makes an assertion that a human cannot have 6 fingers and I say I have seen such a person are you really saying my anecdote doesnt count?”

    If this was as straight forward as a simple observation, a single documented account would be fine. The fact you’re comparing a single-variable observation as counting fingers with something as complex as epistemological change is evident that again, you care less to learn about the psychology of communication and education and more simply wish to retain your belief that it all works because somebody says it works for them.

    There is a reason why a similar anedoctal response would not be suitable to support the efficacy of homeopathy. There are confounding variables which an anecdote has not taken into account. Nothing is controlled for. Bias can confuse conclusions. Keep in mind I’m not saying it’s impossible that ridicule could ever possibly change minds. However, the situation is far more complicated than that.

    Again, this isn’t about counting fingers – it’s about finding a link between cause and effect in something as complex as communication strategies. Now, most people who understand how science works comprehend this quite well, especially amongst rationalist communities. I’ve seen explanations of why anecdotes don’t work when it comes to debunking all sorts of pseudoscientific and paranormal claptrap. Yet here we have the same thinking justified merrily when it comes to a cherished belief in exactly the same manner as any woo-peddler.

    This is a perfect situation for demonstrating critical thinking over justifying an apriori conclusion.

    “Your position is that ridicule doesnt work – a single case is sufficient to prove your position wrong.”

    Two points – Firstly, I’ve said no such thing. It might work well for you if I had, but go back through my posts, and it’s clear that I’ve conceded it can work depending on the intention. Indeed, I’ve clearly outlined my position and evidence in a blog post that has been linked to above in post #8, which evidently you either didn’t read. You’re free not to, of course, but to attempt to attack a position I never made and erroneously compare the evidence with multiple-choice questionnaires shows a willingness to be critical but laziness in understanding what it is you’re criticising.

    Secondly, even if that were the case, an anecdote still would not suffice in this instance, no more than it would if somebody used one to claim homeopathy can sometimes work, for exactly the same reasons.

    “New Atheists have a right to free speech and can criticise and ridicule whoever they please.”

    This is a clear case of moving the goal posts. This isn’t a debate on the freedom to insult for one’s pleasure or to simply air one’s views in any manner they wish. It is a discussion of efficacy of communication based on ridicule.

    “And I for one have yet to accuse you of double standards.”

    I would hope the moment you can provide evidence of me doing such a thing that you would point it out. In such a case I would admit poor thinking on at least one occasion.

  24. #24 Deepak Shetty
    September 28, 2010

    @Mike
    can you concisely state what your position is ? I did click through your blog but the post was too long so I have merely skimmed through it. If you have indeed conceded
    “and it’s clear that I’ve conceded it can work depending on the intention.”
    Then Im not sure what your disagreement is. Your initial statement was “dont communicate … shame/guilt etc” so taking the two above you seem to imply that ridicule can work but we shouldnt use it?

    You still dont answer what sort of experiment you propose to find out the answers to statements like can ridicule change someones views (and how effective it is as compared to other things) .
    When I refer to multiple choice questions , Im referring to the Pew kind of polls of which i’m sure you know examples of. I have stated before that changing your mind is rarely an instant process so unless you observe behavior over a period of time (in which case there are so many additional variables) that I dont see pragmatically whether science can answer the question

    “This is a clear case of moving the goal posts”
    Uhh no . im not trying to say that we have the right. im trying to say each side was entitled to have its view on whether ridicule works or not , it was the accomodationists who started the you shouldnt do this , its harmful! Hence the onus of proof lies there.

    “I would hope the moment you can provide evidence of me doing such a thing ”
    isnt it pretty clear what your comment below implies?

    “to be blunt, it’s what I’d expect from any woo who also wishes to special plead anecdotes in support of their conclusion. That’s not me poisoning the well – it’s pointing out a double standard amongst rationalists.”

    as to the homeopathy comparison for anecdotal evidence , Im not making the case that anecdotal evidence is good , merely that it can be used based on certain situations
    e.g.

    “Did Gandhi’s teachings (or ML King or whoever) change peoples lives?”
    Anecdotal evidence is what you would use right?

  25. #25 Mike McRae
    September 28, 2010

    @Deepak, It’s difficult not to show frustration in moments like this. You ask for a ‘concise’ statement of my position, which was provided in post #9.

    While I can appreciate that the blog post itself is long, it does contain links to evidence that are not Pew polls. I can appreciate you not reading it, however the frustration is that I would expect more from those (and while I include you, I’m finding it to be a common behaviour) who champion the cause of critical thinking than to not research a position before being critical of it. This is precisely the problem I fear – a grassroots community of rationalists who dogmatically adhere to beliefs while modeling the very opposite of critical thinking, all while claiming that others should be doing it.

    “You still dont answer what sort of experiment you propose to find out the answers to statements like can ridicule change someones views (and how effective it is as compared to other things)”

    I have not proposed an experiment. If anything, an investigation and interest into fundamental research into effective communication would be a start. Yet if I did propose one, you seem to think that anecdotes trump even a controlled surveys, on the basis that ‘people lie’. Honestly, that kind of thinking demonstrates a desperation to retain an apriori position. There is nothing that would change your mind.

    “im trying to say each side was entitled to have its view on whether ridicule works or not”

    Of course. Nobody is arguing that you’re not entitled to a view. What makes you think your view is beyond criticism? What makes you think you don’t need evidence to support your reasons behind holding that view?

    “isnt it pretty clear what your comment below implies?”

    I accused you of holding a double standard. What I said was if I commit a double standard, point it out.

    “merely that it can be used based on certain situations”

    Which is special pleading. Again, anecdotes in determining a change in epistemology suffer from the same weakness that they do in determining whether homeopathy can sometimes be used to treat illness.

    Given you’re not interested in taking the time to be informed on a matter you’re obviously taking the time to defend, I don’t see this going very far. I’ve made my case, and again, until somebody can move beyond special pleading, anecdotes and blunt assertions, I don’t see discussion being productive.

  26. #26 Deepak Shetty
    September 28, 2010

    @Mike
    Ill go through your links , but not till the weekend

    Ypur concise statements in #9 is not coherent with what you say you have conceded. Ridicule works in certain situations but dont use it? In the comment you stated for changing epistemology “it’s at best useless and at worst polarising and damaging.” whereas you now say it works sometimes? im confused what your position actually is.

    “Yet if I did propose one, you seem to think that anecdotes trump even a controlled surveys, on the basis that ‘people lie’”
    For certain topics (religion is one of them) – what people say and what people do aren’t the same. If you go by christians opinion’s of christianity on loving other people , helping other people and compare them with their actual acts you will find a world of difference. do you disagree? hence a survey that relies on what people say would be insufficient. I did not say an anecdote trumps a survey , merely that I dont see the point of relying on surveys for such questions that arent in nature true/false/definitive. And Im saying this even if the survey would be in agreement with my views.

    The nature of the topic you are discussing is one that doesnt easily lend itself to be studied because change in humans is a complex process. Do you disagree? There are certain questions that science can answer in principle but cant in practice because of pragmatic reasons. In these cases you have to fallback to other means. Anecdotes are still observations of the real world (assuming the accuracy of the anecdote can be verified) so they arent the evil you think they are.

  27. #27 hoary puccoon
    September 30, 2010

    Maybe this has been clear to everyone else for a long time, but it just hit me– when PZ and other “Gnu Atheists” are being their snarkiest, I don’t think they’re interested in making converts. They’re revving up the base, building esprit de corps, creating a community. People in the Gnu Atheist groups clearly enjoy it, enjoy each other, and couldn’t care less if they’re making converts. That’s not what they’re interested in when they’re being snarky.

    You’ll notice when anyone posts on Pharyngula honestly struggling to give up his or her faith, the regular crowd absolutely never gets snarky. They are incredibly patient, encouraging, and open about their own experiences with rejecting religion.

    You’ll also notice that the religious community does not exactly sit back with Christ-like patience while the atheists dish out all the snark. Is there a single science blog that hasn’t been infested with trolls spouting hard-core biblical literalism, equating Darwin with Hitler, and on and on, ad nauseum? And, obviously, the Christian snark is at least as ineffective as the atheist snark. So on both sides, snark and ridicule look like tools for revving up the insiders, not converting the outsiders.

    Arguing that ridicule doesn’t convert people is probably correct. But it won’t stop the ridicule if the people doing it have another goal entirely.

  28. #28 abb3w
    October 6, 2010

    I noticed the response a bit late. Still, what the heck.

    J. J. Ramsey: Um, that was not the essay’s concluding analysis.

    Correct; I said “of”, not “that”.
    You’re also seem to confuse my position as “no harm”, when I’m merely arguing with “potential for net benefit”.

    Mike McRae: There is an element of burden of proof for those who assert that there is a place for ridicule. In a sense, the behaviour demonstrates the original claim that ridicule is useful. On being criticised of it, there is a rather strange call for the criticism to be evidence based, while the behaviour is exempt.

    Except, it isn’t. I provided a citation earlier (doi:10.1037/0022-0663.73.5.722) to an article that indicates ridicule may be effective (and thus, useful) in some cases. So the question is not whether it can be useful, but how often it can be useful, and whether particular (or strategic) application tends to be more useful than not.

    Alas, the citation seems to have been ignored.

  29. #29 TribalScientist
    October 7, 2010

    @abb3w

    My apologies – I admit I missed the citation. I’ll have a look for it and try to find time to read it. And you’re partially correct; the question is indeed one of comparitive value. But it is also the difference between people adopting beliefs out of social pressure versus epistemological change. I can ridicule somebody until they associate a belief with shame, and they might drop it. Yet they don’t do so out of a logical conclusion, but out of a sense of anxiety over the belief related to social pressure. You might not think the difference is important, until it’s a scientific belief that is ridiculed. It’s often how creationists paint evolution, after all. Then such emotional thinking is decried.

  30. #30 TribalScientist
    October 7, 2010

    @abb3w

    Ah, a quick look at the paper I see it is not only one I’ve read, but one I actually cited in the essay (citation 4).

  31. #31 abb3w
    October 26, 2010

    Ah; a bit late. Oh, well.

    TribalScientist: Ah, a quick look at the paper I see it is not only one I’ve read, but one I actually cited in the essay (citation 4).

    So: as I noted, there is some prospect for beneficial use.
    I retain my objections @10.

    TribalScientist: Yet they don’t do so out of a logical conclusion, but out of a sense of anxiety over the belief related to social pressure.

    Morally, I’m a consequentialist. The anxiety may result in them re-examining their framework, and ending at a “more rational” one. Or at least, may reduce the spread of the woo to the next generation. Since I’m not expecting to live long enough to see the end of this, I’ll settle for making incremental (ha) evolutionary progress.

    TribalScientist: You might not think the difference is important, until it’s a scientific belief that is ridiculed.

    Yes, use of ridicule has risks. The results science delivers helps insure prestige resistant to ridicule. (If clerics routinely raised the dead by laying on hands D&D style, religion wouldn’t have to rely only on dwindling reserves of historical dominance.)

    Worst case is about the same either way: the fundies go insane, start a nuclear war, humanity goes extinct, and the beetles get a shot.

  32. #32 gth09k
    December 6, 2010

    “Now I ask you: What is the point of not being a dick? If the point is not to offend, well, here’s a news flash for you: Your very existence is a grave offense to many of these people. There is no polite way to say that you do not believe what they believe. Whether you’re deliberately a dick about it, or attempt to be polite, it doesn’t matter. You offend them anyway. They are trained to be offended by your very existence. You’re already a dick, just by existing. Might as well have some fun with it.”

    This pretty much sums up why I will never, ever waste my time showing respect for religious beliefs, ever again.

    http://scaryreasoner.wordpress.com/2010/08/21/on-being-a-dick/