Tuesday, August 24, 2010

On being a dick

It’s a little late, but I’ve been on holiday.  I feel I have to say something about being a dick.  I’d hoped I wouldn’t have to because my default position is to give people the benefit of the doubt, but it turns out that there’s no longer any room for doubt.  Phil Plait’s now infamous Don’t be a Dick talk is now available online.

The talk (at TAM 8) was widely criticised.  Phil himself bemoans this here:

I found a lot of the people were grossly misinterpreting what I was saying […].

In the interest of the benefit of the doubt, I was at least half expecting this to be the case.  Is it?  As we’ll see, it’s rather difficult to tell because Phil doesn’t really go into specifics.  However, at least three big-hitters (Ophelia Benson, Richard Dawkins and Ophelia Benson) seem to have it spot on.  Phil hasn’t answered these particular criticisms yet.

I am fascinated that people who disagreed with me read far more into what I said than was there (for example, many thought I was throwing major skeptics under the bus, which I emphatically and categorically did not do.

Yes….. And to my mind, not naming names is part of the problem.  I’ll get to that.

So what did Phil say that was so controversial?  I’ll start with what Phil himself has written about the affair and get onto the content of the video later:

My first point was that we must keep in mind our goal. If it’s to change the hearts and minds of people across the world, then at least as important as what we say is how we say it. And my second point was pretty simple… but you’ll get to it around 24 minutes in. It’s obvious enough.

The second point he’s referring to is:

Don’t be a dick.

OK, let’s take these points one at a time.  First, what does Phil mean by ‘our goal’?  Who are ‘we’?  He’s referring to the skeptical community as a whole and the goal is to convert as many people to critical thinking as possible.  I’m not sure that the skeptical community has shared goals at all.  I for one don’t consider it my mission to convert people to critical thinking but to promote it as an excellent way of doing business and to help people to understand the errors people make when they don’t do it.  This goal overlaps somewhat with Phil’s - I want to see more of the critical and less of the magical in everyone’s thinking – but I’m not really interested in ‘converting’ anyone, let alone everyone. 

This is one of the things that concerns me about the businesses of framing and accomodationism.  We don’t necessarily share goals and it’s not clear that a party line makes any sense.

Second, I agree with Phil’s point that how we say things is important. However, I can’t go as far as Phil in claiming that it is at least as important as what we say (implying that how we say something could be more important than what we say).  More importantly, it seems that the implication to Phil’s mind is that we should be at all times polite and inclusive and… well…. accommodating, the better to convince those who don’t agree with us.  I feel differently.  The way I say something depends on what I’m saying and who I’m saying it to.  It depends on my goals.  And since my goals are somewhat different to Phil’s, it seems likely that my tone will differ at times too.

Third is the issue of not being a dick.  This seems good advice in general and it’s hard to argue that people should be dicks.  But the problem is that it’s all a bit more complicated than that.  It might indeed be the case that being dickish to someone might not incline them to take your side.  However, I don’t think many skeptics set out to insult the people they are trying to convert.  Rather, I think it is usually a third party we insult, often to show others that the beliefs they hold are silly, insubstantial or not supported by evidence.  Humour – even mean-spirited humour – can be a great tool for this.  We ridicule the likes of Ken Ham and his Museum of Bullshit not in an attempt to convert him, but to show others – usually fence-sitters or people who haven’t given it much thought – that the ‘museum’ is nothing of the sort: it’s a temple to arrogance, ego, fear and above all wilful ignorance.  No doubt Ham and many others others (possibly even Phil) would think I’m a dick for saying so.  But they aren’t my target audience.  Phil already knows that the creation museum is bullshit.  He’s a strong and diligent criticiser of creationism.  Presumably Ham and his followers believe the nonsense of creationism to a greater or lesser extent and are unlikely to be swayed by me, regardless of my tone.  But the fence-sitters might be.  The people who just haven’t given it a great deal of thought might be.  And as a skeptic and critical thinker, this latter group is the one I particularly want to target, not just because they are easier to persuade but because you get the biggest bang for the buck.  I wouldn’t be arguing about creationism vs evolution but about critical thinking vs rather vague acceptance of what authority figures say.  In the UK, Christianity has an enormously privileged position in our society and many irreligious people don’t question it.  They don’t realise there’s anything to question because the assumption of this privilege is so strongly integrated in our society.  Many people I’ve spoken to don’t really understand evolution and when they are told about intelligent design feel – without thinking too much about it – that there might be something in it. 

One of my main goals is to raise the profile of critical thinking so that such people come to understand that there are simple tools we can use to work out what we should and shouldn’t believe, that there are good and bad reasons to believe things and that there’s a large community of people just bursting to help them learn. 

Does my being a dick to the likes of Ham prevent this from happening?  Well, no doubt it will turn some people off, at least in the short term.  So many people are indoctrinated with the idea that religion should hold a privileged position in society that they have a natural tendency to be antagonistic when people are rude about the status quo.  However, I would argue that perhaps in the long term, our ridicule and dickishness could start to erode religion’s privileged position, to the great benefit of critical thinking.  Who knows?  Well, as skeptics we need to look for evidence of which is the best approach, which brings me to the most important criticism of Phil’s talk, and finally to the video itself.

Phil begins his talk proper by saying that there are some alarming recent developments in the way skepticism is being carried out these days and a degradation in ‘tone’.  He says that evidence-based reasoning is declining and ad hominem attacks are on the increase.  Evidence-based reasoning, eh?  Presumably Phil has some evidence that this is happening?  He doesn’t cite any, just a general personal feeling.  He goes on (some slight editing):

Let me ask you a question.  How many of you here today used to believe in something, whether it was flying saucers physic powers, religion, anything like that?

He gets people to raise their hands and notes that many if not most hands are up.  He points out that not everyone is born a skeptic.

Let me ask you a second question.  How many of you no longer believe in those things and became a skeptic because somebody got in your face screaming and called you an idiot, brain damaged and a retard?

He notes that most people didn’t put their hands down this time and rather shockingly dismisses the ones who did as joking.

This is the first major bone of contention with Phil’s talk.  I doubt very much that many people have been converted with such a tactic.  Perhaps this is because it doesn’t happen as a rule. I don’t do that.  I don’t know anyone that does.  I’ve never once, in all my long experience, seen this happen.  Phil’s statement has every appearance of being a strawman.  Of course, if Phil had any examples of this happening – or better still, that it is widespread – then it would be a fair point.  But he doesn’t offer any. 

Others have made the same accusation.  Phil says:

The author of this one says I don’t give specific examples, and therefore because he hasn’t seen the insults they don’t exist… and then accuses me of a strawman argument! I find that funny; finding examples about which I was speaking is trivially easy.

Bewilderingly, this rebuttal is itself a strawman.  The author doesn’t say that the insults don’t exist because he hasn’t seen them, just that Phil doesn’t cite any examples.  This means that we have no reason to suspect it’s true so the argument as it stands, unadorned by evidence, is a strawman.  But the evidence is trivially easy to find, according to Phil, so why didn’t he cite any?  It might have been an oversight in his talk, of course, but he could have addressed the criticism head on in his rebuttal of it.  He didn’t.  He just repeated that there were plenty of examples without citing a single one.  Don’t forget that Phil is claiming a general downturn in tone, which he bases on numerous incidents like this, but he doesn’t cite or even describe a single one of them.  What better example of a strawman argument could you hope for?  His own accusation of strawmanary against the author of Atheist Experience is just plain bizarre.

Lack of evidence is the second major bone of contention.  Phil goes on to argue that the best way to win hearts and minds is to not be a dick.  He doesn’t provide any evidence for this, either.  He just states it as a self-evident truth.  As I’ve suggested above, it isn’t clear to me that it’s true at all, especially in the long-term.  This is startlingly odd.  He’s giving a talk about skepticism - indeed about how skeptics should examine their own methods – and he fails to employ the most basic of skeptical tools in his argument. 

Later in the talk, Phil says that we skeptics shouldn’t “take the low road”.  By this he seems to mean that we should emphasise evidence over ad-hom attacks and I naturally agree with that.  But I think this is what skeptics – by and large – do anyway.  PZ Myers is uncompromisingly rude to idiots, but he cites evidence and explains his reasoning.  To me, this is the high road.  I think it’s what Phil thinks of as the high road too, but he seems to conflate rudeness with lack of argument when this is simply not the case.

I’m sympathetic with Phil.  Being a dick isn’t likely to win friends among the offended party.  But I see no reason to believe that it isn’t an effective strategy in the promotion of critical thinking, especially when it is only one strategy among many.  Phil says that we need warriors in time of war and diplomats the rest of the time.  We need more than diplomats, however.  We need agitants. provocateurs, devil’s advocates and comedians.  When we face millions who believe that, for instance, female genital mutilation is either necessary, a good thing or none of our business, then we are at war.  When we face school boards who want to teach children that evolution is false, we’re at war.  We’re at war when we have churches that impinge on our daily lives and discriminate against those who don’t believe their particular brand of bullshit. 

This is the reality of what we face and Phil’s talk has done nothing to convince me that politeness – and politeness alone – is the way to deal with it. 

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