Monday, July 19, 2010

Don't be a dick?

I wasn't able to attend TAM8, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time at TAM7 and fully intend to attend future Amaz!ng Meetings. With any luck, Beth and I will be at TAM9. Every year, there are a great many people I respect and admire and that, coupled with the opportunity to socialize with other skeptics, makes it an event I'd like to regularly attend. Phil Plait is among those I respect and admire...but that doesn't mean we're going to agree on everything.

I've been asked what I thought about Phil's comments. To be clear, I have no reason to think that Phil has any idea who I am and I have no idea who he's talking about (partially because he's not very specific about that)...but I suspect that, on more than one occasion, I might qualify as a "dick" by his definition or that of other people. Fortunately, the evidence about the impact of the much reviled "new atheists" isn't good for the "harming the cause" doom sayers.

But let's get to the point.

During Phil Plait's talk at TAM 8, he took an informal poll:

"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]"

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.

Secondly, this is a prime example of a straw man argument - setting up an issue that is easily toppled instead of the actual issue. Not only has he not provided specific examples, or demonstrated that this is a significant problem, he seems to be engaging in an extremely flawed informal poll (read: emotional appeal) to get his point across. The first question is a fair skeptical inquiry (have you changed your mind about something?). The second question is about as far from it as one can possibly stray.

Of course most people don't simply abandon their beliefs because someone got in their face and called them names. Better questions would be:
- how many of you changed your position after having your beliefs challenged by someone else?
- how many of you changed your mind after having heated discussions?
- how many of you changed your minds after being offended?
- how many of you were prompted to be more skeptical of your position after seeing other people embarrassed by their attempts to defend a view you accepted?
- how many of you have only changed your mind as the result of people treating your beliefs with kid gloves?

Interestingly, some hands still went up for his ill-formed second question (which sort of refutes his larger point) and I wonder how many more hands would have gone up if we actually addressed the issue fairly instead of poisoning the well.

'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."

What an odd argument...I almost can't tell where he's talking about a metaphorical war and where he's being literal because he seems to shift between them without missing a beat. Of course we're trying to persuade other humans, of course we're not trying to kill an enemy...but if Phil doesn't think that skeptics are struggling against the enemies of reason in a way that is occasionally a metaphoric war, then I think he's lost sight of what's actually going on.

It's a false dichotomy that one is either a warrior or a diplomat and an unfounded assertion that there's only room for one or the other in changing people's minds. When superstitious beliefs are killing people or doing serious harm and some in the anti-science, anti-reason crowd refuse to respond to diplomacy, what do you do? Shrug your shoulders and agree to disagree? Write it off as a difference of opinion? Aren't we, on occasion, actually going to need to do something...including things that might shock or offend? Isn't that one of the things that would distinguish a 'skeptics movement' from 'people who are skeptical'?

Find me a skeptic who starts off with insults and name calling and I'll agree with Phil: those people are dicks who are most probably doing more harm than good. Maybe I'm out of touch, but I haven't seen much of this. I'm sure they're out there, but are they really a significant problem?

What I've seen are people expressing frustration, on occasion. What I've seen are people passionate about the truth. What I've seen are people who are unwilling to compromise and unwilling to give certain categories of credulity a "get out of skepticism free" card...

...and I see some skeptics who seem willing to compromise while chastising those who aren't by telling them they're hurting the cause.

"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."

Agreed, but the egos going unchecked might just be the egos of those who think that challenging people's beliefs should be avoided if there's a significant risk of offense or hurt feelings - the ego that thinks their way is the only viable path to change (despite evidence to the contrary). The logic falling by the wayside may be demonstrated by dishonest, exaggerated, emotional arguments that misrepresent and oversimplify the situation (as if skeptics are running around shouting at people and calling them names as a primary debate tactic).

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.

He took a flawed poll, in order to lend emotional support to his position and the goal seems to be to chastise some unspecified segment of the skeptical community who he thinks are being dicks, because they've engaged in calling them "dicks".

I agree with him on many of the points he made and I'm not faulting him for trying to convey his opinion or convince people to agree with him. What I find most amazing, though, is this...

A former president of the JREF and perennial icon of the skeptic community presented a blatant emotional appeal with quite a few logical fallacies tucked in, to a crowd of skeptics at the premiere skeptic event...and it seems the majority of attendees lapped it up (or that's the impression I was left with based on reports).


Perhaps it's because Phil's a genuinely nice guy. I like him and I don't take any pleasure in ripping apart his speech. Hell, I have no idea whether he'd consider me a dick or not and it wouldn't change the fact that I like the guy and we agree on most things.

Perhaps it's because the underlying message was not only positive, but one that we basically agree with: don't be a dick. Don't scream at people and call them names. Attack the issues, not the person. Let's try to avoid unnecessary and unproductive conflicts.

It would have been very easy to write a speech that conveyed that message in a way that almost everyone would agree with and I suspect that Phil probably thought that's the speech he wrote...but it's not the speech that some people heard/read.

Why not?

In addition to the problems noted above, I think part of the reason is that the atmosphere of the day seemed thickened by what many people perceived to be yet another attempt to erect a skepticism-free barrier around theistic beliefs. It's a recurring theme and it was reportedly more pronounced this year than last.

An attempt to avoid conflict actually created conflict. Is anyone surprised?

When are we going to actually act like skeptics and address this subject openly?


  1. Some people running businesses which have been targets of civil-rights-related boycotts over the decades have described them as "violent" or "threatening". Sometimes this is because of protests directly outside their premises, but sometimes it isn't even that. I don't see how a group of people not buying my products/services could possibly be violent or threatening, but there you have it.

    It feels like some kind of equivocation fallacy or similar confusion between concepts. Attacking/threatening a person can be a fuzzy concept. Usually it means threatening their physical safety, which is understandably bad. But if it means attacking their beliefs or attacking their reputation or "attacking" their identity in some other symbolic way, that's a totally reasonable exercise of freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.

    Put another way, I may not be able to justify killing the Pope, but if I could beat and torture his reputation, cut it into pieces with a hacksaw and throw it to the dogs, that's not only not wrong, it's also a public service. I could be nonviolent in a lovable Gandhi-like way, but I can also be nonviolent and viciously attack mindless fear and ignorance, and I don't think anyone has grounds to object to that on principle.

    I'm also totally willing to listen to public relations advice re:atheism, but it has to be specific and contain a clear, well-supported explanation about how and why it will be effective. The vague worry that all the "militant" (though generally unarmed) atheists are driving people away doesn't cut it. Nor is it even reasonable to lump all those people together. Hitchens and Dennett have both been called "New Atheists", but Hitchens goes on the offensive (in both senses of the word) at virtually every opportunity he gets, while Dennett gets in very mild jabs and sometimes bends over backwards to address theist concerns. In fact, I bet Dennett is not really who Plait was thinking of, but he's often lumped in with "those other guys" as one of "the four horsemen". Who/what is Plait really referring to? You've got to be specific about what rhetorical techniques are good or bad if you want to discuss PR.

  2. FYI

    Is It Okay to Mock Religion?-

    "In my deconversion story, I mention that I’d been listening to an atheist radio show for a few months before my deconversion. Actually, it was that show that is responsible for my conversion from Christianity to freethought, which is the greatest thing that ever happened to me. And it got through to me because it mocked me."

  3. I pretty much agree with you on this.
    Phil is a cool guy, but like everyone else he isn't perfect and can get carried away. The speech didn't convey the intended message that well (at least the message I assume he intended to convey), because he didn't leave room for people who use skeptiscism to aggressively pursue the misuse of science and fight the religious dogmatism that inhibit people from understanding science.
    And in my opinion that course of action is sometimes needed. We don't always have to be the defensive do-gooders, sometimes we need to take a stand and fight the "enemy" on their grounds.

    That being said, I haven't met anyone who changed their belief in anything because of screaming and abusive behaviour.
    But that isn't what you guys are doing either (imo). Telling people to learn science before dismissing it, reading the bible thoroughly before making claims or that their ideas are just generally retarded after proving to them that they are self-contradictory isn't hurting skeptiscism.
    I've seen many shows/clips of yours, where the caller at least once admits that something isn't right about their belief. That some small part contradicts itself or isn't logical. If being a "dick" gets religious nuts to admit something might be wrong with their beliefs, then by all means, continue being dicks :)

  4. There is a well-known and oft-remarked phenomenon on political blogs called 'selective attention' (aka 'selective indignation').

    Recent example: On 7/16, Rep Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tx) declared that there were still two Vietnams, North and South.

    Two days later, Sarah Palin (R-Moronia) posted a Twitter comment so stupid that I refuse to repeat it here.

    Rightward 'blogs made much sport of the first; leftward 'blogs, much of the second.

    Both were noticeably silent regarding embarrassments from their respective sides. Twas ever thus, and I suspect ever will be.

    Some skeptics seem to desire the same state of affairs regarding theism: A 'selective scrutiny' wherein we give it to the Bigfoot, UFO, alt-med and Atlantis crowds with both barrels but step gingerly around god(s), prayer and "faith."

    I reject this utterly. By my lights, you do not get to deploy the empirical equivalent of POLICE LINE - DO NOT CROSS tape around your particular mythology. It's Open Season on all topics, or it ain't skepticism.

  5. Out of curiosity, I would like to know if anyone is attempting to trace the flow of money from American evangelical churches to African sister churches, where the results are striking. Give money to an american church, you are paying for graft, corruption, suits, Cadillacs and the occasional trip to Colorado City for some sinful prostitution.

    But as that money flows overseas, it is going toward burning people alive, witch hunts, and insane anti-gay laws.

    Does skeptical and atheist rhetoric make some people uncomfortable? Sure. The net effect, skeptics are to be held accountable for anything that any skeptic says anywhere that is perceived to be "dickish" by any theist. Whereas theists are, yet again, given a get out of jail free card for the crimes that they helped pay for because the money can't be traced... Because to trace the money would be "rude".

  6. Hi Matt, this post is probably going to be largely ill-informed speculation but I think it might make a decent point.

    I think discussing the subject of theism is probably a taboo. Normally I'd think that was a bad thing but in this case I'm not so sure.

    Let's assume for a moment that almost everyone (including theists) realises that the proper application of skepticism to theism results in atheism, and that, for whatever reason, the theists still care more about being a theist than a fully fledged skeptic.

    What's going to happen to the skeptical organisation that broaches this question openly? I think you'll get some theists who are embarrassed into dropping their theism and a whole lot more who feel embarrassed and don't drop their theism - those people are no longer going to feel like full members of the community. This could affect supporters, activists and, unless care was taken, the audience of skeptical education and outreach programs who may feel alienated if they think the organisation is promoting atheism. That, or potentially much worse, a long and bitter intra-community feud.

    That's the risk, where's the reward? Maybe a removal of an uncomfortable philosophical inconsistency? Ummm...

    As far as I'm aware these organisations are not out to promote skepticism of religious claims unless they pertain to specific testable claims, they're concerned with shorter term issues and woo busting; there are other organisations who are willing to take up the religious skepticism cause.

    TL;DR: I think that broaching this taboo risks a lot in order to gain very little, from the perspective of a skeptical organisation.

  7. I like the article.
    Let's face it. People will feel offended if their cherished believes are put up to scrutiny, even if done in the most polite and soft-spoken way.
    Being diplomatic and persuasive is all good and well if you're capable of performing that, but I still prefer a blunt and honest response to leaving bullshit unchecked. If we as skeptics make not upsetting people one of our goals we have already lost our cause.

    At last year's TAM London I spoke with quite a lot of skeptics about Hal Bidlack's remarks in Vegas. No one (I'm sure some do, but I didn't find them) seemed to agree that exempting religion from skepticism was the thing to do.

    As I see it, the only versions of God-believe that can survive the application of skepticism are those that are so vague that they are meaningless and almost indistinguishable from atheism.

  8. Actually since for me a big part was Penn and Teller, I have to fall into the category of "Convinced by someone yelling at you and calling your names".

  9. @ Foolfooder

    I was not aware that skepticism was trying to build a church of itself.

  10. @foolfodder: I disagree. "Gain very little"? "removal of an uncomfortable philosophical inconsistency"? I think you underestimate the gain.
    Like most other commentators here, it seems to me that you just cannot be a skeptic if you exclude certain topics from your skepticism. The gain, from my point of view, is nothing less than integrity, and I think that would be worth alienating those who think that skepticism should limit itself to other people's beliefs.

  11. Hmm. One possibility is mr. Plait has fallen prey to the Phenomenon of Idiocy. The PoI (AKA Law of Idiocy) states simply that you cannot have an intelligent conversation with an idiot. You can only have _idiotic_ conversations with idiots. There are no other possible combinations when the other party is an idiot.

    For example, the couple of times that Richard Dawkins has gone on the Bill O' Reilly show. These are canonical instances of the operation of the PoI, where an intelligent person (RD) tries to have an intelligent conversation with an idiot, with utterly failed results. And so on...

    In my experience, two general things happen when I try to evade or overcome the PoI (i.e. try to have an intelligent exchange with an idiot):
    a) I go idiotic and descend into Ad Hominums (because the idiot can't or won't respond to reason).
    b) The idiot starts accusing me of Ad Hominum attacks (when in fact I'm only challenging his idiocy; he interprets that as an Ad Hominum because he sees his idiocy as a part of him. And so it is.).

    A) I have fortunately learned to control somewhat, so b) tends to the general outcome nowadays. But both a) and b) can co-occur.

    Either way, the result is the same - someone develops the perception that the other one is "getting in your face, screaming and yelling and acting like a retard". And later on, this sensational event (imagined or real) gets propagated around and turns into a typical urban legend like the one Phil Plait seems to have accepted (that skepticism is necessarily coupled with some kind of getting in one's face or other Ad Hominum attack).

    Finally, the usual source for this is the idiot and not the skeptic. Idiots, practically be definition, interpret any kind of criticism as an Ad Hominum attack (non-idiots rarely, if ever, do this because we don't associate ourselves with our ideas). So it's typically the idiot that also spreads the attacked-by-the-skeptic story.

    We're then left to pick up the pieces and try to ferret out what really went on in whatever the precipitous exchange was.

    So that's my initial proposal as to the origin of this idea of skepticism-implies-raving-mania. Sounds like idiocy to me; an unwarranted payment of attention to idiots rather than non-idiots.


  12. Wow, I can't believe Phil stooped to such a strawman, but as others have said, no one is perfect. But don't go on stage either directly or indirectly painting people who aren't afraid of challenging religion with a broad dick brush.

    I actually get a bit of a kick seeing the mental gymnastics these skeptics are going thru trying to defend theism without falling into these traps.

    A good product almost always sells itself, and if you are having to work this hard to sell it- or, in this case, protect it from any scrutiny- it is probably a pretty bad product.

  13. BTW, on a related note-
    does anyone else feel that "argument from incredulity" is better than "from ignorance?"

    It is part of the dickness- if you say the first, people will typically say "how do you mean" whereas the second almost always causes someone to say "you calling me an idiot?!?"

    As always, there are times it is probably warranted, maybe when the person doesn't respond to the former and is being a putz, you switch over to the latter, but when I hear people start off with "ignorance," it almost always degenerates because the term, while not inherently insulting, has a condescending connotation.

  14. If I have to point to one thing that started me on the path to deconversion (other than 9/11) it was a David Cross comedy CD where he savaged any kind of religious belief. It probably comes down to how I think, but his satirical take on all things Jesus made me confront my superstitions. While "being a dick" won't work for everyone, confronting people can work and at very least get them to start thinking about what they believe and why.

    I think this happens more often online (ex: than offline and maybe that's the best/most effective place for the debate? Faith is a very personal thing ultimately - I know I professed a whole lot of faith right near the end but the taunts I kept stumbling on eventually took their toll and won out. Not in and of themselves, but as a catalyst to greater discovery.

  15. @J, yeah, I think Matt and others have pointed out the "shock treatment" value. It probably works best when you see someone else getting mocked instead of being directly mocked.

    I do like to point out the absurdities because religion is often so ingrained and people often just haven't thought about it- they just accept it- and pointing out absurdities is a kick in the logical ass a lot of people need.

    It certainly helped me in my de conversion. Works the same with politics- there are things I think are "common sense" until someone tears them apart on a show and I have to think, "hmmm, maybe I need to think about that some more!"

  16. @ Muriel

    Hi there,

    "Like most other commentators here, it seems to me that you just cannot be a skeptic if you exclude certain topics from your skepticism."

    It depends what you mean by skeptic, in this context. If you mean "someone who applies skepticism to all their beliefs" then you (and those other people) are right, if you mean "someone who fights woo" then I don't think you (and those other people) are right; it's not necessary to apply skepticism to everything to be an effective woo fighter.

    "The gain, from my point of view, is nothing less than integrity, and I think that would be worth alienating those who think that skepticism should limit itself to other people's beliefs."

    Integrity of what or whom? Not yourself, presumably, but the community? So you get a community with a bit more integrity, but one that's less able to combat woo. Seeing as the point of the community is to combat woo I'm not sure that that's a particularly good trade.

  17. Matt's right.

    Let's think about this rationally. If, intead of theism, the "dicks" were vigorously criticizing--even mocking--Wall Street, or the Tea Baggers, or Libertarianism, or any other belief system that wasn't religion, would Phil be calling them "dicks"?

    Of course not. Essentially, Phil's calling for the same old thing: That is, that we do not criticize religion as harshly as we do other things, that religion get special treatment--and anyone who doesn't observe that is a "dick." I find this silly. The new atheism is right: Step 1 is that we must treat religion just like everything else--no more free lunch. I guess that makes me a "dick."

  18. Can I just say, OMFSM Pharyngula is on strike!!!

  19. I see a number of things here. Firstly, I think it's another example of skeptics being uncomfortable about being associated with atheism. This has been covered elsewhere, so I won't go into it, but I think that (a) skeptics who treat atheism as being taboo are intellectually dishonest and (b) when it comes to dealing with subjects like ESP or spoon-bending, I haven't noticed skeptics being understanding and gentle unlike those mean atheists - they have mocked like the best of them.

    To some degree, making fun of a silly belief can help as it exposes the emperor's new clothes syndrome - you were inculcated into not questioning something and then suddenly you did - and realised that belief was absurd.

    I suspect it may come down to an overreaction by the skeptic community (or Phil) in that the response of "you're being mean and unconstructive with your criticism" that often comes of valid and honest skeptical criticism is interpreted as a PR disaster and immediately the community must retrench and re-cast their criticism in much 'nicer' terms. It's an overreaction - challenge anyone's taboos (or 'strongly held views' to use that happy phrase) and you'll get a very emotional, and often irrational, reaction. Don't get scared and assume it's your fault every time.

  20. @foolfodder: I can see your point, but I still don't accept it. If a skeptic is anyone who "fights woo", then someone with a glass pyramid under his bed who wears magnetic bracelets, prays sixteen times a day and slavishly follows his horoscope can call himself a sceptic as long as he is willing to openly oppose homeopathy. I don't think so.
    "Integrity of what or whom? Not yourself, presumably, but the community?"
    I am primarily talking about individuals. As I understood this, Phil Plait thinks that all skeptics should behave as he proposes, while Matt just says that it might be all right to be a little more aggressive than that. I am not arguing that every single skeptic is obliged to constantly and viciously attack religious beliefs. I just think there's nothing wrong with it.

  21. I was at the talk (my first TAM!) and I didn't take away "Don't be a dick" as the core message, though it certainly got latched onto as it was a good laugh line.

    Certainly he was making a point that being confrontational and demeaning often are not effective, but he repeated a few times "What are we trying to accomplish? (or things to that effect)" It struck me his concern was more about accomplishing a goal rather than simply promoting civility. As skeptics we want to change minds and need to keep that in focus.

    His point was to remember what you are trying to do. And often being a dick does not accomplish your goal. I am pretty comfortable that he would not have a problem with going after the peddlers of woo with derision, but when you are trying to change someone's mind you need to take a perhaps gentler tack. And remember that you are unlikely to change someone's mind right then and there. But you plant the seed, give them the info they need, and perhaps you get your desired result.

    And calling someone an idiot generally is not got to do that for most people.

    I am myself guilty of "being a dick" because a lot of the time I cannot grok how people can be such compete dumbasses about the most retarded shit. I get impatient and frustrated. Phil's talk ended up being the core of TAM for me as it helps to remind me what I am actually trying to accomplish.

  22. I have to say, that the only time I have seen sceptics being 'dick-ish' when it comes to theism, is when they have been provoked by insults, utter stupidity, wilful ignorance, fingers being stuck in ears, and the like.

    Volatility is surely a very emotional response, and the emotional response has to come from somewhere. When it comes to non-sceptics it often comes from feeling they are being attacked, rather than merely their arguments being disagreed with.

    I think one has to be careful of taking things out of context, when calling people dicks and the like. Everyone has a breaking point - if someone gets pushed beyond it, then depending on their character, they are very likely to 'be a dick'. I might have been one myself when faced by the inanity of a presuppositionalist, and the tediousness of hours spent trying to be patient, and calm, and answer the same question I answered a moment or two ago, whilst also waiting for answers from them that never come.

  23. "We aren’t trying to kill an enemy."

    Ignorance or Magical Thinking is an enemy and we are most certainly trying to kill it. It requires warriors whose weapons are diplomacy as well as reason, skepticism, understanding, empathy and cogent argument. Like a parent trying to reach a child or a reporter trying to reach a consumer we are metaphorically forcing their hands under the water fountain of reason and signing the words. We are pleading for them to comprehend, "It has a name!"

    Whenever there is someone who is so dense as to defend the creation story of having light before you can have a light source all I can think of is the scene from the Miracle Worker where she's had an assful of all the bullshit and is going to teach this kid come hell or high water. In reality I know I can provide the counterargument, but I can't force them to understand. I can want the hell out of it, but I can't make them get there. I can only do my best to be inclusive and pose the skeptical question, accept them and still ask? How can this be so?

    I have seen a few dicks on youtube, but you definitely aren't one of them Matt and I don't know why you would think you were being called out. At best I just see the exhaustion of having, for the millionth time, to once again try to get the deaf and dumb to sign the words and not have them get it.

    Anyway, love your work and love the show.

  24. "I reject this utterly. By my lights, you do not get to deploy the empirical equivalent of POLICE LINE - DO NOT CROSS tape around your particular mythology. It's Open Season on all topics, or it ain't skepticism."

    @ George From NY: I couldn't agree more with you!

  25. Speaking for myself, I can honestly say that my deconversion was pushed along not only by Carl Sagan and Cosmos, but also by more "dickish" displays, such as Penn Jillette ruthlessly tearing into Victoria Jackson back on Politically Incorrect on the mid to late 90s. They were discussing sex (I don't remember the exact subject), and Victoria kept starting her arguments with, "The Bible says... " Penn, as you can imagine, couldn't keep his cool long. Before too long, he was refusing to let her finish a sentence that stared with that phrase. He was trying to get her to think for herself. The producers cut to commercial, and when they came back, Penn said something to the effect of "The producers asked me to be nice to Victoria, so I'll try."

    I am a little troubled by what seems a top-down effort to silence discussion on religion in the skeptic community. Maybe I'm wrong on that, but from what I've read from people who were there, it wasn't just Phil giving speeches on separating skepticism from the theism/atheism debate. It's political. They've seen the effect that the whole Paul Kurtz/Blasphemy Day debacle has had on CFI, and they don't want to lose money. I don't want the JREF to shut down, but it still makes me sad.

  26. @Muriel

    Hi there again,

    "If a skeptic is anyone who "fights woo", then someone with a glass pyramid under his bed who wears magnetic bracelets, prays sixteen times a day and slavishly follows his horoscope can call himself a sceptic as long as he is willing to openly oppose homeopathy. I don't think so."

    Erm, okay, change "fights woo" to "fights woo and doesn't do any woo too" or something like that. (N.B. Woo doesn't include most religious stuff in this instance)

    "I can see your point, but I still don't accept it."

    I'm not sure why you don't accept my argument (I'm not trying to say that you should have, just that I don't know why). I'm accepting that this approach results in an inconsistency in the way skepticism is applied. Do you not accept it because you disagree that there's a significant risk of making the skeptic organisations less effective? Or maybe you disagree because you think that consistency is more important than whether the organisation becomes less effective? Or both? Or something else?

    "As I understood this, Phil Plait thinks that all skeptics should behave as he proposes, while Matt just says that it might be all right to be a little more aggressive than that. I am not arguing that every single skeptic is obliged to constantly and viciously attack religious beliefs. I just think there's nothing wrong with it."

    I'm not really sure that Phil's comments are related to the theism in skepticism debate. But.... I don't see anything wrong with viciously attacking religious beliefs per se, I guess I think it depends on which hat you're wearing and the context. If you're wearing your "New Atheist" hat, then be the scourge of ill-founded religious ideas; if you're wearing your "Skeptic" hat concentrate on debunking woo rather than making your fellow woo debunkers or woo-related audience feel uncomfortable. Something like that. Thing is, I expect most people will tend to do one or the other actively, with a lot of people being interested in both things in a less hands-on type of way, depending on where their passions lie.

  27. Worse than using insults to make a point, it is accusing the other side of being insulting, or offensive when it is not that is... insulting.

    And if you are not convinced by insults and name calling, being nice does not bring more weight to your argument either. I didn't turn away from Catholicism because of atheists (okay, a bit, some of them). Those who first influenced me to slowly deconvert and reject my faith were the devout Catholics and Christians I knew, most of them very nice to me, because the argument they brought to believe and worship I found were utterly ridiculous. Discovering their logical fallacies, I doscovered my own.

    Oh, and sometimes insult is sadly the only answer. I don't think I can stay polite about Sarah Palin, Nadine Dorries or cardinal Marc Ouellet.

  28. Respecting religion makes religion respectable. IMO the goal is to deprive religion of respectability. However successful the sceptic movement is there will always be some who believe nonsense, but if they are deprived of respectability then they lose most of their power. The few who still believe in astrology get very short shrift from the rest of us, this is how it should be for religion too. When religion is understood as a relic of the mostly ancient past in the same way as astrology is, then we will probably have gone as far as we can. But it will be enough.

    "There should be more mocking."

  29. Okay, maybe it's just me, but I don't really see a problem here.

    If the skeptical movement finds itself associated with atheism, are we expecting otherwise skeptical theists to give up being skeptical because they're no longer part of the movement? Are we afraid that, if we drive them off, they're going to completely forget/ignore the reasons why they were skeptical of woo in the first place and start becoming anti-skeptics?

    It's almost like Phil's saying that to be a skeptic at all, you have to associate yourself with the skeptical movement. Why? I understand that the whole point of the movement is to kill off magical thinking and unreason, but do we have to be afraid to tip over people's sacred cows? What good does it do to have a skeptical movement that isn't equally skeptical of all supernatural claims? Like Muriel said:
    "If a skeptic is anyone who "fights woo", then someone with a glass pyramid under his bed who wears magnetic bracelets, prays sixteen times a day and slavishly follows his horoscope can call himself a sceptic as long as he is willing to openly oppose homeopathy."

    What kind of skeptical movement would we be if we accepted ghost hunters as skeptics if they were otherwise skeptical of quack medicine? Why do people's religious views get treated so utterly differently?

  30. I think he (Phil) actually makes some very good points. That being said, I still believe there are times when it's perfectly appropriate to be a dick.

  31. - how many of you changed your position after having your beliefs challenged by someone else?

    On several occasions.

    I certainly lost my belief in all kinds of stupid woo after being challenged dismissively, and realizing I had nothing to support them other than unsubstantiated assertions from the very people that stood to gain by my acceptance of the claims.

    Did I like it? Not one bit. But it (ultimately) convinced me.

    I learned a powerful lesson, whose ramifications were still shaking out a decade later as I lost my last shreds of religious belief.

    I am better for having been challenged. A little rudeness is sometimes exactly what's required

    - how many of you changed your mind after having heated discussions?

    Frequently! Not always right there and then, but yes, it happens a lot.

    This relates to well known principles in selling people things - you can convince someone intellectually that something is a good idea, but they don't act on it unless they make an emotional connection.

    It's a similar thing with getting people consider that they carry mistaken notions - if you're diplomatic, they can agree on an intellectual level, but it takes an emotional response to make it as far as altering beliefs.

    After a recent polite exchange with a theist, I got a message like "Yes, I see that what I thought was a logical belief is not based on a valid premise."

    Did they change their beliefs? No. They just backed up to an emotional reason for that aspect of their belief, while asserting that their remaining "logical reasons" were still convincing, and ended the conversation. I convinced them intellectually, not emotionally.

    - how many of you changed your minds after being offended?

    Being offended is perhaps the most common reason I ended up changing my mind about important things.

    I used to watch a TV program that offended me regularly (and indeed, it's no longer on TV because it offended people). I chose to keep watching it because I was fascinated to discover what I was offended by and why.

    That show held a mirror up to my little biases, emotions and cherished ideas - and I didn't always like what they showed me. Often, concepts I held dear were not held for very good reasons, and I eventually abandoned many of them.

    Over and over, I have come to treasure being offended, at least when it came with a point.

    (final question to follow)

  32. (part 2 – response to final question)

    - how many of you were prompted to be more skeptical of your position after seeing other people embarrassed by their attempts to defend a view you accepted?

    Oh, absolutely. Referring back to the TV program I mentioned, the silliness of the media responses to many of the offensive pieces - showed me just how empty ideas I'd never have dreamed of criticizing others for holding could turn out to be.

    - how many of you have only changed your mind as the result of people treating your beliefs with kid gloves?

    Actually, I don't recall ever changing my mind about something that I had an emotional investment in under those circumstances. Maybe it has happened a few times and I've forgotten, but it's not something that happens a lot. Emotional investment tends to win out.

    I think there are times when a polite engagement can make a difference, but impolite engagement is also important. Sometimes you have to shake things up.

    There's a place for both kinds of discussion.

    I find it interesting how often the people complaining about impoliteness can become astonishingly rude themselves. I've had numerous online discussions relating to this (most frequently on reddit) and often the rudest responses I get from people I converse with are not from the fire-and-brimstone theists, but from other atheists complaining about how people need to be polite and considerate. Which politeness they often completely abandon when arguing how unconvincing impoliteness is.

    The irony is usually lost on them.

  33. To be perfectly honest I was ultimately tipped from "nominal" to "atheist" by one of the biggest dickish assholes in the world.

    Harlan Ellison's "I'm an atheist, not an agnostic. Atheist, I don't believe. And most of you are too, you just won't say it out loud."

    First time I really heard someone casually not only be unafraid of the label, but encouraging it as a positive thing instead of a character flaw.

    You don't get more dickish than the Prince of Darkness.

  34. Also if it's one thing that pisses me off to no end, it's not hostility but fake niceness. It's why I don't like Mormonism a lot and the missionaries especially. I don't want to be around someone who's nice to me "because they're SUPPOSED to be" I want to be around people who'll be nice because they like me. I can't trust people who are civil at all expense. I can trust people who'll be honest and I appreciate them more because I know their niceness is genuine and earned.

  35. I wholeheartedly agree with this post. I was there, and amidst the standing ovation, I turned to my wife and said "I think we just got tone trolled by Phil Plait." It stung, because, like Matt, I have a deep respect for Phil (in large part because of how nice and positive he is) and all I could think was what Matt said: he created and demolished a strawman.

    One of his examples was how he recently handled a creationist child at a school lecture he gave. He handled it calmly and politely and with his trademark positivity and exuberance and it went well for all parties involved. He went on to ask, more or less, "What would it accomplish to just call the kid a retard and yell in her face?"

    Well, nothing, and nobody disagrees with the sentiment. Anyone that yells at a kid and calls her a retard would be a dick. And that's where the problem lies: by asking that question, Phil implied that there are people out there who think it's appropriate to treat kids like that. Not only that they're out there (for they certainly are) but that they're a prominent part of the skeptical community. But where are these people? Where are these insane, screaming, rabid skeptics who just want to froth at the mouth and make everyone else feel bad? I've never met one, and I dabble in assholery pretty often.

    Moreover, Phil never defined what he meant by "dick." I know what I mean when I say "dick," and, in fact, my primary moral rule is "Don't be a dick." But without a working definition of "dick," Phil's point was extremely vague. What kind of thing is okay? What isn't? What's off-limits and what's in open season?

    Phil, remember, is the guy quoted on the back of Glenn Beck's latest book saying "Glenn Beck is an idiot." What makes that not dickery? Phil was so vague that people could (and probably did) read whatever they wanted into his speech.

  36. This comment has been removed by the author.

  37. Sorry for the double post, but my initial post was too long so I had to split it into two.

    It's almost like Phil's saying that to be a skeptic at all, you have to associate yourself with the skeptical movement. Why?

    This is something I've been wondering for quite some time. As my friend Tom recently said, "Skepticism is not something I joined. Skepticism is something I use. I apply skepticism to the claims I encounter in my life. It's a set of cognitive tools that I use to evaluate reality and the claims people make regarding it." What determines a "good" or "bad" skeptic is how well and consistently they utilize the tools of skepticism, not how they interact with people, but what I'm hearing from lots of people lately is "You're a skeptic. You're one of us. And we have a code of conduct that goes above and beyond rational, empirical inquiry."

    Well, I may be a skeptic, but that does not necessarily mean I'm one of anything. It just means I evaluate claims with the toolset of skepticism. Unless specifically noted otherwise, I don't claim to represent anyone other than myself. I'm happy to hang with other skeptics and do so regularly, but that doesn't mean that we all walk in lockstep toward the same end.

    What goes hand-in-hand with this kind of thinking is the other point of Phil's talk: "Think about what you're trying to accomplish." Well, sometimes I'm trying to convince people of something, like Phil was talking about. When I do that, I act in a certain way. But sometimes I'm simply trying to have fun ridiculing the ridiculous, to make myself and maybe someone else laugh. Sometimes that is my sole goal, and when that's my goal, ridicule is very effective. I mean, what's the point in having a calm conversation about some of the shit for sale on eBay? I write about those as a lark, for fun, and I don't expect to convince anyone of anything. I expect to maybe get a laugh or two out of someone.

    We should think about what we're trying to accomplish. That phrase, however, should not be shorthand for "Remember that all skeptics should be trying to change people's minds and the world at all times." We all have our own goals and our own priorities and framing this entire pointless, dead-end "controversy" between nicey-niceys and evil meanies in terms of what "works" is missing the point entirely.

  38. Thank you for this post, Matt. It's spot-on.

  39. For me personally I started calling myself an atheist because of Matt's constant mocking on the non-prophets of agnostics. So yeah his style of arguing definitely persuaded me.

    I don't really understand what Phil Plait was talking about though. His quotes all seemed rather vague.

  40. I'm hoping on the small small microscopic nano chance that Brad ^ is in fact Brad Pitt

  41. I think part of the "schism" element comes from the core group of notable skeptics being pretty small and people like Phil Plait being really good friends with theists, both in the movement and in life in general, and, being a nice person, he is trying to protect them.

  42. @Foolfodder: "N.B. Woo doesn't include most religious stuff in this instance" And who gets to decide which Woo is included in the definition of Woo and which isn't? I just think that this idea to exclude certain kinds of nonsense from your skepticism fundamentally contradicts the whole idea. If you can accept partial skepticismu, that's okay, but I don't.
    Towards effectiveness: I am not sure whether skeptic organizations might become more effectively if they were willing to exclude certain irrational beliefs from their skepticism, but I am sure what they certainly would become: Hypocritical. That's why, for me at least, effectiveness is not even a factor.
    And finally, Phil's argument and theism: You're right, I did not want to claim that he limited this to the theism debate. But I still think that skepticism should not exclude religion, because I don't see where that differs from other kinds of Woo. Of course, it's better established and has more and more devoted followers. But should that be an argument to a skeptic? Would we exclude crop circles and vampires, if enough people took them seriously?

  43. I don't really understand how a debate, like we are currently having, comes to be.

    Speaking for myself I'm not skeptic at/against/about specific subjects.
    I'm just skeptic.
    I don't exclude subjects from my skeptiscism, but I use my common sense to judge when I should make my skeptiscism public or when something is just a laugh.

  44. One thing, in Phil's defense: a lot of people here seem to think that he was talking about being nice to theists specifically, but he didn't make any specific mention of excepting theism from strong criticism, and I didn't actually get that message from his presentation at all. I don't think he was coming at the issue at that angle, I just think he's bought the general "negative tone" meme that's been floating around lately; he started out by talking about how the tone in the skeptical blogosphere has degenerated lately and is somehow worse than it has been, a pattern I fail to see and for which he presented no evidence.

  45. But given that the "negative tone" meme is just that, a meme, a good skeptic should treat it with caution, and maybe even dig around to see if there's any truth in it. Given that just about all the invocations of the meme that I've seen (and I'm making a study of the damn things) breezily neglect to offer a single example of this famous "negative tone," a good skeptic would then realize that this is just backlashy bullshit, and not join in.

  46. Was this talk before or after he called Glenn Beck an idiot?


  47. Well said, Matt. And it's my observation that when Jeff Dee rips a theist caller a new @sshole, the target has richly deserved it.

    In a related vein, I just finished listening to an infuriating episode of the Reasonable Doubts podcast which included an interview with Chris Mooney making many of the same points that Phil Plait did in his TAM address, apparently, tossing many barbs at the usual suspects...PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, etc, bemoaning their use of terms like "fundie fucktards" and "faith heads"...

    But what struck me was Mooney utter mis-characterization of PZ, et. al. by removing the context of said remarks. Every time I've read Pharyngula and PZ rips into someone, the target has always been richly deserving of said scorn by their truly abominable actions or speech. PZ doesn't hurl such invective lightly or on a whim. Hell, even Schilling doesn't...much ;-)

    You'd never guess this listening to Mooney, though. Ironically, Mooney voices much the same philosophical positions as PZ, even denies that faith is a valid path to knowledge, even denies the late Steven Jay Gould's NOMA compromise and just whines about "tone" and "incivility".

    The RD guys did ask him some hard questions about his Templeton Foundation award, so props to them for that, especially to Dr. Luke Galen.

  48. It takes attacks from all angles to reach the many corners of people on this planet. I know mocking people's beliefs is one way to cause some people to take a closer look at those beliefs, as that is what happened with me. Yet there are still people that will disagree based on speculation. The "Harming the cause" arrogance of some of them really pulls my chain.

    I would really like to see some hard data on people that de-converted from a religion back to atheism.

    "If you can pin it down, what first caused you to take a closer look at your beliefs?"

    I am not sure what the results would be, but I will speculate that it would shut up the "harming the cause" people.

  49. The "Harming the cause" arrogance of some of them really pulls my chain.

    Damn skippy. Not just because of how presumptuous it is to tell people what they need to be doing, but because they assume that all people who call themselves "skeptic" are fighting for some "cause" at all times. Not all of us want to spend our lives being activists every waking moment. Some of us just want to have fun sometimes.

    A comment on Steve Novella's Neurologica Blog a month or so ago said it well (and I'm paraphrasing from memory): "Why does everything always have to be political? What ever happened to just having a fun blog?"

  50. @Akusai

    My thoughts exactly. I always tell them that I hope they didn't sign me up for "The Cause" without asking. And yes, having fun is important to our sanity. In fact, when possible, trying to have fun when being political is a good idea.

    I'm off to read the article you referenced. It sounds like a perfect read to confirm my thoughts on the subject.


  51. @Ing

    ///Actually since for me a big part was Penn and Teller, I have to fall into the category of "Convinced by someone yelling at you and calling your names".///

    So were you convinced by Penn (loud & obnoxious) or by Teller (whose style Phil Plait might more likely approve; say absolutely nothing, but occasionally scowl & shake your head)?

    Sure, Teller's an atheist who doesn't put credules' noses out of joint. Because he follows their advice "if you don't believe in the Almighty, just stfu about it".

    (A "credule", btw, is a credulous person, just as a "skeptic" is a skeptical person.)

  52. I think that, in any movement, we need a lot of different people going at the problem from a lot of different directions. People vary in the amount of aggression they can speak with just as people vary in the amount of aggression they can listen to. I'd just say that if it's important to you that the other person think about what you're saying, that it better be important for you to think about what you're saying, too.

    It is easier, indeed, to notice offensive things done by people you disagree with than to notice offensive things done by people you agree with. I know that since I'm human, I've got my own bias-filters; I do try to counter them. I am a liberal, and it is harder for me to spot in-group/out-group bias, double standards and self-contradictions among liberals than among conservatives--but I work at it, and I spot them.

    I have personally talked with atheists who are delightfully blunt, and with atheists who are self-indulgently offensive. The attitude of "I am right and you are wrong, therefore you are a lower form of life, I can be as nasty to you as I feel like, and I don't have to listen to a thing you say," is not at all restricted to fundamentalist theists. Pretending that it does not happen because you don't do that yourself is as dishonest as a kind and gentle Christian denying that any Real Christian ever beat up a gay guy.

  53. Matt D,

    Phil isn't saying, "Don't challenge irrational notions," or "Don't defend rational thought because you might offend someone."

    He's saying, "Challenge and defend, just don't be a dick about it."

    He doesn't have a rigorous definition of "Dick-like" behavior, I suppose. But surely we can all agree on some core principles without having to write a peer reviewed paper on the subject. Be polite. Be civil. Be courteous. Promote assertiveness rather than aggressiveness.

    It's not really that difficult, is it?


  54. @GooglinSD (Tim)

    I never thought he was saying that and I didn't write that he was saying that.

    Why would you come over and tell me what Phil *isn't* saying if I never implied that he was?

    Did you even read the post?

  55. Matt D,

    You wrote,

    "Why would you come over and tell me what Phil *isn't* saying if I never implied that he was?"

    From your blog,

    "Agreed, but the egos going unchecked might just be the egos of those who think that challenging people's beliefs should be avoided if there's a significant risk of offense or hurt feelings -"

    Doesn't that point directly to "Don't challenge irrational notions" and "Don't defend rational thought because you might offend someone?

    Also from your blog,

    "In addition to the problems noted above, I think part of the reason is that the atmosphere of the day seemed thickened by what many people perceived to be yet another attempt to erect a skepticism-free barrier around theistic beliefs."

    Isn't a "skepticism-free" barrier another way of saying that theistic (irrational) beliefs are not to be challenged?


  56. Tim...

    The first quote only addresses Phil if, in fact, he's one of those who think that...if he's not, and I didn't say that he was, then it doesn't apply to him.

    The problem is that he left us (and continues to leave us) guessing at what he's really saying (though I think that his Part 3 post confirms my suspicions that, once again, the subject he was focused on was primarily 'skeptical theists'). I can hardly be blamed if he's not defining how far is too far or if he seems duplicitous because of that omission while talking about the skeptical god believers who cried and thanked him.

    His talk was so amorphous that people inserted their own meaning - exactly the way they do with religious talks. It was sophistry.

    The second quote addresses the overall atmosphere of the day and didn't directly address Phil.

    I talked about a few problems in this post, and I asked lots of questions. It's a bit wrong to assume that I'm necessarily asserting something about Phil's position when I'm actually questioning what it is and then, in the absence of an answer, addressing various possible problems that may or may not map to Phil's position.

    "Be polite. Be civil. Be courteous. Promote assertiveness rather than aggressiveness.

    It's not really that difficult, is it? "

    Yes. It's a naive oversimplification. He made it without any specifics and people, apparently like you, inserted their own standards and lapped it right up.

    I'm pretty sure I actually covered this in the post.

    On a side note, I probably won't be back to this month-old thread...the conversation has moved to other places.

  57. Matt, did you read one response on the WEIT blog, which contained the kernel of a very astute observation?

    I quote:
    ...To a certain extent Plait is doing accomidationist Cold Reading, “I sense a skeptic being Dickish. Does that mean something to you? Do you understand that? Yes, because my thesis is telling me that Skeptics are dickish. Keep that.”"

    "Accomodationist Cold Reading" is exactly the low carney schtick that Phil was pulling on the audience!
    (Some of whom refused to co-operate)

  58. I'm not sure how fair it is, but it's certainly amusing to label it accommodationist cold reading. :)

  59. "what do you do? Shrug your shoulders and agree to disagree? Write it off as a difference of opinion? Aren't we, on occasion, actually going to need to do something...including things that might shock or offend?"

    I think that's setting up a false dichotomy right there. Either be diplomatic or "do something" including things that "might shock or offend."

    Not that there is anything against being shocking or offensive, if it works. It doesn't always work is all, and it can be counterproductive.

  60. I'm on the side of Phil Plait here. To answer your question "Where are these people who scream in your face on behalf of skepticism?" Jeff Dee is a prime example on this show, and you do it as well.

    Someone like Russell Glasser, for instance, is the counter-example. I don't think I've ever really heard him raise his voice in anger.

    For me, the take home message of Plait's talk was not "don't be a dick" but that "skepticism is hard".

  61. To follow up, I don't think Plait is offering to treat these issues with "kid gloves" or that he is advocating the "everybody has got his opinion approach"

    Again, like he said: skepticism is hard. Explaining the position accurately and politely is, to me, the best approach (championed here, again, by Russell) and if the other party starts becoming unresponsive in whichever way, instead of raising your voice and calling them names (as happens more often now on this show) just mute them, explain the particular disservice they have done to your conversation, and move on.

    To me, this kind of cool-headed approach would get a lot more information across and benefit a larger spectrum of your viewers.

  62. Phil, I see your point about Jeff, but I think I disagree.
    He has ben screaming now and then, yes, and his indignation about the threat of hell seems a little over-the-top now and then, but I don't quite remember him being a dick.
    I think there's a distinct difference between screaming in someone's face on behalf of skepticism (from the beginning) and starting to scream sometime in a discussion when the other part is preaching about how you're going to be tortured forever and just won't shut up to let you answer.


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