Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Don't be a dick, part 2: looking beyond the foreskin...

Phil Plait posted part 2 of his response to the conversations spawned by his "Don't be a dick" speech at TAM8.

In his response he addresses my previous post on this subject and I think he does so very dishonestly. I posted the following, but I don't want it to get lost in the list of comments:

“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”

Actually, what I said was: “First of all, who is Phil talking about? This seems a bit quixotic and exaggerated to me. Where are these people who scream in your face on behalf of skepticism? Where are these people whose primary tactic is to yell at someone and call them a retard? Since Phil didn’t provide any examples to support the claim, we can only guess.

That isn’t an assertion that the problem doesn’t exist, it was a legitimate objection. I even specifically mentioned that I felt it was exaggerated – which clearly means I’m not saying that the insults don’t exist, I’m saying that I haven’t seen evidence to support your implication that this is a serious and escalating problem.

You failed to provide examples, leaving us to guess. What I said was accurate…but instead of addressing it, you misrepresent it, so you can shrug it off committing yet another straw man right here.

“… and then accuses me of a strawman argument!”

Which, ironically, you’ve just done – again.

“I find that funny; finding examples about which I was speaking is trivially easy.”

Then please provide them. This is the same sort of reply we get from the woo-clan. They claim something is true (vitriol is on the rise) and when someone asks for specific examples, they misrepresent the comment, laugh at it and claim that the evidence is all around you (or similar).

I’m legitimately trying to figure out the specifics of the problem here and find out why some people don’t see this.

“The author also says I set up a false dichotomy and call people who don’t agree with me dicks… all without the benefit of having heard my talk.”

I had read the transcript and now I’ve watched it.

It is, in fact, a false dichotomy to present the options as “warrior” or “diplomat” to the exclusion of other options and combinations. That was my charge and it stands. Why not honestly address that charge instead of hand-waving about the fact that I hadn’t yet heard the talk? I quoted the transcript for this charge, it was accurate and my response stands…unanswered.

And again, what I wrote was: “And maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t Phil basically calling those who disagree with him, “dicks”? Granted, he’s being very polite about it, but that seems to be what he’s doing.

I was pointing out the potential irony. Your entire point was to object to the unnecessary name-calling which makes it harder to sell something that is already difficult to sell. My reason for pointing this out was that it’s ironic that you couldn’t even do this in your own talk.

“As far as appealing to emotion… hello! It’s an emotional issue. That’s the point. Note that my appeal to emotion was logical because it sets up my premise that being a dick doesn’t help.”

No, sir. I was pointing out the fallacy of making an emotional appeal. It doesn’t become “logical” simply because it sets up your premise. Setting up (flawed) premises is the entire point for using emotional appeals and it’s the reason that it’s often noted as a fallacy – because it’s insufficient to the task, epistemologically, yet remains convincing because humans respond to emotional appeals.

At least you provided a link so that people have the opportunity to read what I actually wrote.

You and I actually agree on the bulk of this (which I noted in my response) and it’s distressing that your response to legitimate and accurate objections and questions is to misrepresent what I’ve said and scoff.

The irony runs pretty thick on this one.


  1. Sometimes it can be quite a, what should I call it, healthy experience to see that being a sceptic doesn't necessarily make you more rational than, say, Christians, when dealing with criticism. As the saying goes, we are all one tribe...

  2. I love the title of this post.

  3. The sad part is that the irony in present in the title of Plait's speech. He's basically decided that the way to describe people who are too aggressive in the defense of reason to suit his preference is to call them a bunch of "dicks" and dismiss them in the same way he claims that some skeptics dismiss the woo merchants while calling them names.

    It reminds me of the attacks on people for being too judgmental of others, which is itself a judgment. What it comes down to for me is a combination of deflection and projection. It is people who want to avoid criticism by putting the blame on other people for behavior that they have no problem with engaging in themselves.

  4. Man, Phil's a dick. >_>

  5. Let's not go overboard here. Phil's a fine guy and an important and valuable figure in the skeptical movement. But his perspective is just way off on this one.

  6. Here's an example, on my blog:

    It is one of two posts on my blog that gets the most hits, and the most comments (the other one is a recipe for roasted chicken -- go figure.)

    So, I'm one of those dicks. And, it seems to actually kind of "work", in that it stirs up conversation instead of just getting ignored.

  7. Stevec,

    Thanks. Phil can link to your post as one prime example of what (I think) he was talking about. You are a dick in that post and if we find a lot of people out there spewing the sort of vitriol you're spewing, I may have to concede that Phil has a legitimate claim.

    Fortunately, I don't see many posts like yours and I remain unconvinced that your post (despite clearly representing a problem) represent a significant problem because I doubt that any reputable news source or any significant thinking portion of the population would ever look at that post as representative of anything beyond your own frustrations and thoughts.

    Additionally, I looked through some of your other posts and they're not all like that - which leads me to suspect that this was one of many approaches you've tried (or that you were particularly pissed off that day) and that it isn't truly representative of you, or what you'd say in an actual conversation with someone. (If it is,'re definitely part of some problem.)

    You unwisely painted with a broad brush and you take some decent arguments and present them in a way that diminishes their value - not only with your venom, but by demonstrating that you're actually prone to logical fallacies as well.

    If stirring up conversation was the goal, it succeeds - but if convincing people was the goal, I didn't see anything in the comments to suggest that you were successful. What I saw was people (rightly) pointing out that you were being a dick/asshole/whatever.

    For clarity: your comments in that post don't strike me as those of a rational, skeptical atheist and I'm not the slightest bit worried that anyone might confuse you for one.

    I'm glad, though, that I finally have one example that I'm pretty sure Phil and I can agree on... Stevec's post probably does more harm than good.

    I wonder, though, if we'd agree that this post probably doesn't sum up who Stevec is?

    I'm still waiting for evidence that posts like this are a serious and escalating problem.

  8. FWIW, That post was triggered by watching the video that's at the bottom of the post (presuming the video still works.)

    That being said, it does strike me that Christianity *is* *very* obviously idiotic, and I'm being asked not to say what I really think because it's not nice. OTOH, not saying so is kind of dishonest, if that is what one really thinks.

    There are also examples like this:

    I think there is room for a number of approaches. Phil is mostly right. But that doesn't mean there's no place for the bad cop in the good cop/bad cop game.

  9. Phil's speech was flawed, and I think he knows it. Matt's objections represent the views of many of us who sat through the speech.

    The speech he gave was milquetoast and half-thought-out. I'm not trying to be a "dick," but Phil's speech didn't appear to be something he put a whole lot of time or thought into.

    The biggest flaw in the speech, indeed, is that he doesn't name names. Then, when people like Matt point out that the entire speech begs the question "Hey Phil, who, exactly, was being a dick, and when?" Phil's reaction is essentially to pull the Intelligent Design move and say the evidence is obvious, too obvious and abundant for him to trouble himself to cite. This is bad form, plain and simple. A skeptic, when asked for the evidence that supports his/her assertions, happily provides it. Period.

    Not to get too trigger happy with the genital metaphors, but if you ask me, calling people "dicks," without having the balls to say just who you're talking about, is itself a dick move.

  10. As much as I like Phil Plait's blog (the first one I read every morning, for alphabetical reasons), I am totally with Matt on this.

    It seems that Phil is confusing the respect that every person deserves, with the respect to the ideas that person expresses, which has to be earned.

    Perhaps we are witnessing the rise of the 'New Skepticism' movement?

  11. Well my 2 cents is that part of the problem is just so-called "conventional wisdom". People throw around axioms like "you attract more flies with honey than vinegar" or "opposites attract" and such and they sound great on the surface but people often don't actually study cognitive science to find out if they are actually true. There is a fun website out there called "You are not so smart" which actually presents research on how a lot of these commonly held beliefs are actually wrong.

    So I think part of Phils error is the same error a lot of people make in that they are applying conventional wisdom to a situation, just assuming it is true rather than (as a good skeptic should) actually examining the details and observing what the real effects are.

    Finally, at the crux of the matter is defining what 'goes to far'. You see a lot of comics and such showing how an atheist is considered 'militant' just for speaking their opinion. What Phil (and others) has to be careful of is that he is not allowing (excuse the term) butthurt Christians to define away valid criticism as rude behavior and thereby make it out of bounds. I don't think he is, but something to keep in mind.

    The funny thing is that Matt and Phil are like in 99% agreement about this entire issue. The only difference (it seems to me anyways) is that Phil seemed to think the issue was important enough that he gave a speech on the matter and Matt see's it as kind of a non-issue, worrying about a problem that doesn't exist. Like if we had a talk at TAM about not feeding Christians to the lions. Is anyone actually doing this? Why do we need to worry about it then?

  12. I'm rapidly losing interest in this subject. Honestly when I first heard about Phil's speech, I thought the title sounded so stupid that I just didn't really pay it any attention. After Matt posted about it I decided to take a look at the transcript and right from the get-go I wasn't interested in any of the rest. I've enjoyed when Phil is on The Skeptic's Guide and all, and he's going to turn out to be a good populizer of science, but this whole "stop being mean" thing he's doing just seems really poorly thought-out. There's plenty of venom and vitriol from people of all walks of life, but offending or insulting someone doesn't automatically mean you are being venomous or vitriolic.

    Being insulted or offended is a subjective thing. I've insulted and offended people when it was the farthest thing from what I was actually trying to do. Sometimes just challenging someone on what they think is "insulting" to them. I don't think Phil's done a nearly good enough job to demonstrate that vitriol is in fact "on the rise".

  13. Phil has some decent points about being persuasive and not alienating people, a sort of "more flies with honey" type of argument.

    I think that specifically with religious arguments, however, counter apologists often run into the deadlock of "it offends me that you are challenging my beliefs". The only rational response to this is "you leave me no choice".

    You can say "tough shit", but it really does not add much to your point, so perhaps Phil is on to something even if we can't play 100% nice all the time.

    He does dodge his burden of proof and really should be bothered to state some specific examples. An appeal to emotion is never a logical point, also. Ironically, I think he fell right into the defensive mode he talked about toward the end of his talk when Matt pointed these problems out.

    So, I think he has a lot of worthwhile ideas in the talk, but indeed it had some problems.

  14. Stevec,

    Thank you so much, that is exactly what most of us are thinking most of the time. LMAO!

    One criticism. You did not mention Pascal's Fucking Retarded Wager.

  15. While Stevec's own blog could be cited as one of those "dicks", what, exactly, is wrong with it? Now I don't go around telling everyone I see that they're retarded, but I'd be a liar if I said I didn't think those things. How many of us can honestly say we've never thought "man, this guy is f#!@ing retarded!"? Matt, we all know you think this, because if the words that do come out of your mouth are you trying to be polite, in your mind you must be thinking that some of your callers are absolute retards. And many, both theists and atheists, would agree with you.

    What if I do think that religion is as stupid as praying to a jug of milk? Why is being such a dick a bad thing?

  16. @James

    I don't think that. I'm not *trying* to be nice. I tend to say what I think. I may occasionally be diplomatic, but I don't think Christians are retarded or stupid or idiots or anything so broadly unfair.

    I think they may be stupid about a particular issue - like I was. I didn't get smarter, though. I didn't graduate from being a retard. I had some beliefs that were wrong and I corrected it.

  17. "What if I do think that religion is as stupid as praying to a jug of milk?"

    Hey, show some respect for those who pray to jugs of milk! At least those jugs of milk actually exist...

  18. Part of the problem is that we all define "dick" differently, and the "don't be a dick" people are all very reluctant to name names or cite examples or specifically define the term "dick." But they'll throw it around as if we all agree on what it means.

    A different part of the problem is that their definition of "dick" doesn't seem to include "telling other adults how to behave and what to do when you have no evidence to back up your position and are basically relying on your prestige to bully people into doing things your way." Mine does.

    Just to be clear, I'm not specifically talking Phil here--haven't looked at the speech yet--but Phil's not the only one trading on the "skeptics r so meeeen" meme.

  19. I may qualify. Though I try to be nice and all at first, I just have little patience for after wards when it sort of seems clear that no one is getting anywhere and the theist is bullshitting. I am trying to have an appropriate voice though, but me lacking Matt or folk's patience is why I'm not putting myself on TV or anything.

  20. Sorry, another thought occured.

    I also tend to actually be more sympathetic than I act. I actually feel really really bad for the conservapedia guy because he's basically been groomed to be the king of crazytown since birth. With no education and only insane troll logic taught to him he didn't have much of a chance. So I tend to be more pittying towards really insane theists, but I kind of don't think that'd really be much more appreciated.

    The theists who are really evil or take action though I kind of think that getting their attention with a "What the hell are you thinking" is one way to try to shock them out of their comfort zone.

  21. Look, Matt and Phil are both great teachers. I respect and admire the work both of them have done to promote science and critical thinking.

    Phil got me started, then Matt and crew put the stake into what was left of my theism. I am forever grateful to both of you guys..and girls (in Austin).

    Phil, I love you man, but you may be going a bit Hollywood. I understand why you may want to dial back the rhetoric. Strident atheism does not play well on the Discovery channel.

    You will have a chance to reach more people than any of us ever will and that is so important right now. So I'm cool with you not getting your hands bloody like the rest of us.

    This will be a long battle and will require both hot heads and cool heads to prevail.

  22. Your patience on this one, Matt, is admirable. I've listened to Plait on a number of issues and he has always struck me as a bit smug - though this may be selective bias feeding into a gut feeling, on my part.

    His reaction to the original talk is very, very disappointing.

    P.S. This reminds me of a small appearence he made on BlogTV a while ago with dprjones (a prominent YouTuber). DPR made the point that he would trust James Randi on an issue of claimed psychic ability more than a woo woo proponent (note, DPR did not say 'accept as fact'). Plait then immediately jumped on that with "No, that's appeal to authority, how dare you." - and not in a humorous way.

    I think he likes to imagine that he is in some elevated position where he can diagnose the fallacies of others, from on high. Again, perhaps this is just a personal perception: but the way he assumes causal statements, on behalf of others, grates with the idea of being skeptical.

    One has to actually listen to what people say - not assume they have indulged fallacy just so you can rebut it.

  23. Hey Matt, I think you should take some pride in the fact that he spent more space addressing your post than others because I think that indicates it was the one he felt most threatened by.

    I could be reading too much into that, but he seems more comfortable simply dismissing the others while he tries to preface yours with a defense of his positions. Win!

  24. "A different part of the problem is that their definition of "dick" doesn't seem to include "telling other adults how to behave and what to do when you have no evidence to back up your position and are basically relying on your prestige to bully people into doing things your way." Mine does. (TF)"

    Well said.

    It's not that I think badly of Phil Plait - contrarily, I have enormous respect for him - but he does evidence the tendency observable among those in the skeptical/secularist movement possessing academic "cred" - PhD, tenured professor, etc. - to see themselves as a kind of aristocracy, obligated and entitled to instruct us lowly sans culottes on how to speak, behave, protest and so forth.

    I would reply to Plait that diplomacy is not an end in itself; it's a means to an end. Pace Clausewitz, the warrior and diplomat differ in method, not purpose.

    When diplomacy interferes with achieving the objective then it not only can but SHOULD be discarded.
    Sometimes temperance simply doesn't work.

    There is a mindset which sees attempts at moderation not as a signs of good faith or civility but as weakness and proof of unworthiness.

    The precincts of theism are heavily populated with this manner of thinking. Remember that we're talking about people who believe in magic, literally - or that they're on the right side of a cosmic battle between good and evil spiritual forces, and we're on the wrong side.

    Playing nice with such people isn't going to get us anywhere. Assuring them that we 'respect' their 'faith traditions' and whatnot will earn us only their contempt.

    (There is an important, related matter here concerning how post-modernist doctrines, i.e. Truth as Constructed Narrative, are double-edged swords as dangerous to science as to scripture.)

    This is also why cease-fire calls such as the NOMA idea suggested by Steven Gould (Science Be Upon Him) are mistakes. The other side doesn't view such efforts as bridge-building but as hesitancy born of fear and incapacity.

  25. "Hey Matt, I think you should take some pride in the fact that he spent more space addressing your post than others because I think that indicates it was the one he felt most threatened by. "

    That and the fact that he's ignored my comment (which became this blog post) despite responding to others - even with other people noting that it would be nice for him to respond.

  26. Phil has no problem "being a dick" when it comes to people who believe that the moon landing was a hoax. But he, like Chris Mooney and other accommodationists, gets self-righteous when someone treats religious woo with the same dismissal.

    I'm glad for your post, Matt. I had the same reaction to Phil. Supposedly these "strident atheists" are everywhere, but no one can cut and paste a single quote from them. Nor is there any evidence that they cause "harm" to any "cause". In fact, there seems to be evidence that the more "strident atheists" are bringing more people to reason than their more "accommodating" peers.

    What Phil is really asking is for other nonbelievers to "respect" religious faith the way he does. I think it's dishonest and ennobles the inane idea that there are "diving secrets". To me, it's the same as pretending the proverbial Emperor COULD be wearing magical robes that only the chosen can see.

    Phil imagines himself a diplomat of sorts, I suppose, but I prefer more honest skeptics-- the ones that don't treat religious superstitions differently than other superstitions.

    Woo is woo. Respecting religious woo makes believers believe that their woo is something worth respecting. But it's no more worthy of respect than the woo they dismiss and mock.

    Maybe Phil is hoping for Templeton money.

  27. "divine secrets"-- not "diving secrets". AArgh.

  28. Supposedly these "strident atheists" are everywhere, but no one can cut and paste a single quote from them.

    That's not true, actually. What they tend to do is:
    1) pluck a comment out of PZ's comment section
    2) strip away any context
    3) ascribe it to or blame it on PZ himself (optional)
    4) assume that the comment represents how "strident" atheists speak and act in the real world.

    I've seen some very nasty things said by atheists online, but no nastier than things said by anyone else online. But what I've never seen, having been to several atheist gatherings and speeches, having watched the Atheist Experience for years, and so forth, is anyone "[getting] in [someone's] face, screaming, and called [them] an idiot, brain-damaged, and a retard." I've seen that sort of thing happening metaphorically online, where someone writes a scathing blog post about someone else (or their beliefs), but I've never seen that happen in meatspace.

    And the closest I've come to seeing that is on "Penn & Teller: Bullshit!" where (aside from the "getting in your face" part) that's the show's plot. And I don't think Phil would argue that "Bullshit!" is unconvincing or unpopular...or unacceptable.

    Which is where I keep ending up. In the skeptical movement, there's no one I can think of who would fit any definition of "dick" more than Penn Jillette--except maybe Trey Parker and Matt Stone. And yet, those are among the most popular, long-running (generally/occasionally) skeptical shows on television. There's nothing particularly rational, and a lot dickish, about calling people motherfuckers or "the biggest douche in the universe," but it gets people paying attention to the rest of it because being a dick is often entertaining.

    So, no, I probably haven't been convinced of anything by Penn Jillette saying "and then there's this asshole," but I've occasionally been convinced by what came after that. And if Penn & Teller weren't hilariously vitriolic, I wouldn't want to watch the show.

  29. Re: the academics and apparent elitism. I think a part of the problem (and it's been explicitly stated by some) is that some people--and I don't think Phil is really among them--want skepticism to become a serious academic discipline, rather than a toolset that everyone can use. This "srs bzns" model of skepticism looks down on things like humor and ridicule, because those things aren't "srs" and hurt the image of skeptics as stuffy academics. And if skeptics don't have that image, then they won't be accepted by stuffy academia.

    Which I think is where the most dickish attitude of all comes in: accepting loud skeptics so long as they are useful, while decrying their methods behind their back. Folks like, (not to name names), Junior Skeptic author Daniel Loxton, will appear on shows like the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe and be all friendly and shit, but will turn around online and say "I am uniformly against 'contemptuous ridicule,'" and "I strongly encourage skeptics & atheists to trend away from ridicule." Now, I love the SGU, but I can think of few people who engage in contemptuous ridicule more awesomely than Rebecca Watson. Maybe it's just me, but that kind of thing (and it's just one example and one person of many) smacks of highly dickish dishonesty.

    That two-facedness is a common theme in this kind of discussion. "If we don't tell theists that skepticism and science led us to atheism, maybe they won't catch on!" or "We shouldn't be critical of theist skeptics' beliefs, because the poor little things can't handle it." Fuck that noise. If you're a skeptic, you should expect your beliefs to be questioned by other skeptics. Period. And being dishonest to protect people from the facts? That's as dickish as you can get.

  30. Dude...if Rebbecca Watson is one of "those dicks" what chance do people like ME have?

    I was about to list her as maybe what Phil would consider an example of someone being critical but not dickish.

    I think that immediately removes most people who post or comment here, and listen to either show from the table.

    Phil REALLY can't reasonably use Pharyngula as an example of that's a very specific arena. Pharyngula is the intellectual equivalent of a roller derby...don't go into the comment unless you're ready to be insulted and mocked and burnt with the fire of a thousand suns for the slightest slip up.

  31. To be fair, I don't think Phil has singled out Pharyngula, even if everyone thought he was. That prize goes more to Mooneybaum and the "You're Not Helping" sockpuppets.

  32. but will turn around online and say "I am uniformly against 'contemptuous ridicule,'"

    And what annoys me about people who say that, is the unspoken assumption that ridicule is always bad.

    There are theists who have told me that ridicule is what started them questioning the divinity of their 'truths'. Ridicule is what caused them to study their beliefs so that they couldn't be ridiculed again. They are the ones who highlight it as a causal factor in their progress to skepticism, and sometimes, atheism.

    GeorgeNY summed up the problem with diplomacy very well. The problem will ever remain those who mistake their personal displeasure with 'dickish' behaviour with an actual problem with this approach.

  33. His reaction to the rebuttals tossed his way demonstrate that no matter how adept one may be in terms of skepticism and rational thinking, we will never escape our base human nature.

  34. When one deals with interlocutors whose sole premise is to willfully lie, and who don't give a fig about what is true, it is hard to NOT be a 'dick'.


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