I feel chastised.
Undoubtedly the most controversial, most thought-provoking talk at TAM 8 was Phil Plait‘s “Don’t be a dick” talk, in which he decried what he sees as the rise of incivility in the skeptical blogosphere.
He wrote it down ahead of time so as not to ad lib and accidentally say something he didn’t mean, and since I have a recording of it, I should really quote him (slightly cleaned up) and not paraphrase, so as not to distort his meaning. I apologize in advance for the length of both the quotations and my response. To quote Blaise Pascal, I lack the time to make it shorter.
If you were at TAM, you may want to skip directly to the arguments. If you don’t want to read or even skim through those, you can skip ahead to the discussion. If that’s still too long for you, the conclusion is (spoiler alert!) Phil’s mostly right, partly wrong.
Instead of relying on the merits of the arguments, which is what critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning is about, it seems that vitriol and venom are on the rise.
Let me ask you a question: how many of you here today used to believe in something — used to, past tense — whether it was flying saucers, psychic powers, religion, anything like that? You can raise your hand if you want to. [lots of hands go up] Not everyone is born a skeptic. A lot of you raised your hand. I’d even say most of you, from what I can tell.
Now let me ask you a second question: how many of you no longer believe in those things, and you became a skeptic, because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot, brain-damaged, and a retard? [Very few hands go up]
Skepticism is hard. Skepticism is in many ways a self-annihilating message. Okay, how do you convince someone they’re not thinking clearly, when they’re not thinking clearly?
And it’s worse, because […] as most of us already know, our brain is not wired for skeptical thinking. It’s wired for faith. And so, what we’re trying to say to people is difficult for them.
Studies have shown that people who lose their faith tend to replace it with something else, with a different type of belief. If you start out religious and lose your faith in God, you’ll replace that with something else, some other non-evidence-based reasoning. […]
It gets worse. Studies have actually shown that when you debunk a myth or misconception, you actually wind up reinforcing it later. So when somebody comes in and says, I think that, say, the full moon on the horizon is because of the atmospheric effects acting like a lens; and you say no, it’s an illusion, it’s because of this and this and this, and a year later you say, what causes the moon illusion?, they’ll say, “you know, I heard it was an atmospheric effect”. And so, debunking reinforces the things we’re trying to debunk. It’s irritating, actually, and it puts a damper on trying to show people why they’re wrong.
It just keeps getting worse: the message we’re trying to convey is hard all by its lonesome. And it’s worse when we’re trying to peddle(?) this idea — when you think about it, what we’re actually saying — of no magic, no afterlife, no higher authoritative father figure, no security, and no happy ever after, okay? This is a tough sell. And in many cases, people will prefer magic over science, and they will prefer fantasy over reality. Santa Claus is more fun than getting presents from your parents, right? And the tooth fairy is more exciting than knowing that it’s just your parents putting money under your pillow. (I’m sorry, spoiler alert, there.)
[…] The generic person out there, somebody not in our group, they tend to hear a message that science is hard and that it’s boring. And worse, skeptics and scientists, we tend to be thought of as being stuffy and stilted, antisocial, if not evil and downright sociopathic. Atheists eat babies, don’t you know? So it’s a tough sell.
Also, how do believers think of themselves? Many times, their self-identity is wrapped up in their belief. One of the most important things people use to define themselves is their religion or their belief. They might say, “I’m a UFO person” or whatever, doesn’t matter what the belief is.
Not only that, our society stresses faith. How many movies have as their final message something about faith? How many books, how many TV shows? The doubt in the movie is downplayed. The person who is doubting is shown as ineffectual, even bad. And the belief is the highest ideal. […]
So all of this is stacked against us. And this is a lot of stuff stacked against us. Why in the hell would you want to make it harder to deliver that message?
What I see [in the skeptical movement] is that hubris is running rampant. And that egos are just out of check, and sometimes logic in those situations falls by the wayside.
How many of you play chess? I’m guessing a lot of you do. How often do you sacrifice a piece for the greater goal? You can have your queen at the end of the game when your opponent checkmates you, but you’ve lost. You’ve lost the game. It doesn’t help. Another analogy: a pedestrian has the right of way while crossing a street. And certainly if you walk off a sidewalk when a car is coming, you’re technically in the right. You’re also roadkill.
When you’re dealing with someone who disagrees with you on some matter, what is your goal? What is your goal? What are you trying to accomplish? Insulting them, yelling at them, calling them brain-damaged, or morons, or baby-rapers may make you feel good. (That’s been used, by the way.) It may make you feel good. It may help you vent, it may help you release frustration, it may rally the troops, it may even foment people to help you and to take action, and let’s be honest, it may allow you to feel smug and superior, at least in that moment.
But is your goal to score a cheap point, or is your goal to win the damn game?
It’s not terribly controversial to say that when someone is being attacked and insulted, they tend to get defensive. They’re not in the best position to be rational or self-introspective. It’s going to be very difficult to change their mind when you’re doing that.
In times of war, we need warriors. But this isn’t a war. You might try to say it is, but it’s not a war. We aren’t trying to kill an enemy. We’re trying to persuade other humans. And at times like that, we don’t need warriors, what we need are diplomats.
So after all this, 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.
[…] But seriously, don’t. 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. And I asked you two questions at the beginning when I stood up here in the first place. The first one was, if you used to believe in something. And the second one was if you lost that belief because someone was a dick to you. My goal, my personal goal is have everyone in the world raise their hand when they’re asked that first question. And the other part of that goal is to never even have to ask the second one.
He makes a good point. He makes several good points.
And since I like me some snark and insults, of course I started feeling defensive and trying to see if I could find any holes in his argument. Of course I want to be right. But more importantly, I want to be right for good reasons. So I started thinking of situations that looked analogous or might shed some light on the problem:
Telepathy: I used to believe telepathy was real, or at least plausible. I remember being frustrated that the county library didn’t have any books on developing one’s telepathic talents. What started me down the road to not believing in telepathy anymore was my science teacher in Junior High telling me it didn’t work. He didn’t insult me or anything, he just told me that it didn’t exist. Here was someone I respected, an authority figure, telling me my belief was wrong. I didn’t believe him right away; it would take a year or two more, but he gave me a push in the right direction. Point to Phil.
The Open-Source movement: Free and open-source software has been around for a long time. (For those who don’t know, open-source software is software for which the source code, the stuff the programmers actually write, is available to anyone who wants it. You can’t change the way Internet Explorer works, because Microsoft won’t give you the source code. You can, however, get the code to Firefox, and, if you know what you’re doing, fix bugs and add features.) The Free Software Foundation was incorporated in 1985, but its founder, Richard Stallman, says that when he joined the open-source community in 1971, it “had existed for many years”. 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).
Yelled at at the intersection: On my way to the airport after TAM, 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.
Getting to people first: There’s a lot of woo that I never believed, like the idea that you can balance an egg on end, but only on the equinox. I had never heard of that when I read Phil’s debunking of it. Likewise, I ran across the debunkings of (I think) things like homeopathy and spiritualism from people like Martin Gardner and James Randi long before I ran across the woo itself. I was thoroughly disabused of any notion that astrology might work when I read about an experiment disproving it in a French magazine similar to Scientific American.
So 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.
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.”) This sketch doesn’t contain that exact phrase, but it’ll serve, since he calls creationists “stone cold fucknuts”. 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. This brings me rather neatly to
Playing to Win: I was referred to the book Playing to Win by Russell Glasser. It’s mostly about computer games, and the idea is that a lot of people have rules in their heads that aren’t actually in the rules, such as the notion that rushing your opponent (building up a few pieces quickly so that you can attack your enemy before he has had a chance to build up any defenses) is unsportsmanlike and unfair. (The Non-Prophets podcast also discussed these issues, as well as how they pertain to politics and spreading rationalism in episode 4.14, around the 59:40 mark). The idea is that 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.
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.
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.
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.
I think I’ve counted most of the points above in Phil’s favor (if not, I’ll go back and adjust the weights so that they are), so I think that by and large, he’s right.
On the whole, I like Phil’s viewpoint: I’d like to live in a world where superstition and ignorance can be overcome by education and polite discourse. But I’m afraid that that’s like thinking we live in a world where war is never necessary (a delusion with which I’m all too familiar, believe me).
Of course, at the beginning of his talk, Phil said that he was trying to curb the excesses of the blogosphere. So maybe he would say that sometimes, insults are necessary or unavoidable, just as war is sometimes the least unacceptable option. But maybe we can all agree that, all else being equal, more civil discussion is preferable.
Having said that, there’s a lot to be said for doing what it takes to win. When insults and vitriol work, use them; when they don’t, don’t. One problem, though, is that this is not a war, where you destroy the enemy’s army and go home. Or a game, where you score the most points and go home. Or politics, where you only need to worry about one election at a time. What we the skeptical movement are doing is more like homesteading. The problems we face today — ignorance, superstition, and the like — are never going away, because each new generation starts out ignorant, and because our brains are wired for superstition. We need to be in this for the long haul.
And just as the iterated prisoner’s dilemma calls for a different strategy than the single-shot prisoner’s dilemma, “what works” is probably not as machiavellian as it sounds. If you call someone a idiot on an Internet forum and drive them away, you’ve won the day, because there’s one less idiot around. But if you explain to someone why they’re wrong, where their argument doesn’t work, where their thinking is faulty, then you’re investing in the future. You may not convince your opponent that you’re right and he’s wrong, but you might, perhaps, get him to stop using that particular argument. If you’re lucky, he may even explain to others on his side why that’s not a convincing argument. Perhaps more importantly, if you’re not a dick, you’re not driving them away from future conversation.
Don’t forget that you’re representing the team. If you’ve ever been cut off by a car with a Jesus fish, or seen a WWJD sticker and thought “Jesus would use his damn turn signals”, you know what I’m talking about. Don’t drive people away from me because they’re pissed at you, and we both walk under the same label.
On Internet forums and other public conversations, remember that you’re playing for an audience. You may not be able to sway your opponent — in fact, you should probably just assume that you won’t — but you can have an effect on the audience. Sometimes, like Lewis Black, you might be able to pull off the being the smart funny guy with the acerbic wit and withering stare, but far more often, the way to win is to be the guy who had all the facts, presented his side clearly, and stuck to the topic at hand, and let the other guy be the irrational bozo who has to resort to insulting you.
But most importantly, I don’t have the answers. You should ignore probably 80% of what I said above. I just wish I knew which 80%. (And yes, I realize that lot of Phil’s criticism was addressed at me.) I don’t know how to effectively promote rational thought, and I don’t think anyone knows. But I think we’re smart, we’re inquisitive, we’re flexible in our thinking and open to argument and correction, so let’s crowdsource this problem.
Let’s ask ourselves Phil’s questions: “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 let’s see what works, and do that.
(Update: Added the bit that got truncated the first time.)
Update, Jul. 16, 9:11: See the followup.
Update, Aug. 17: The JREF has posted the video, so you can watch the whole thing.