Friday, August 27, 2010

There's a Dick Joke in Somewhere in this Title

I can't do it.  I just can't.

I really wish I could be up to my armpits in what has become in my mind one of the most unlikely debates in the skeptisphere.  Or more to the point, I can't believe how much vehement toothgnashing has risen over this, and I feel like I ought to be participating much more than I am.

It was my intention to put out a token response - as I did in my last post - and catch up with the results in a few weeks or months after I am acclimatized to being a father.  But (due largely to being tweeted by none other than Dr. Phil and Daniel Loxton) that post single handedly became my most read post ever and the 150 minutes following it being posted was the best month for hits this blog has ever seen.  So now my appetite has be whetted... and it seems I have a some time to kill before daddy-hood descends upon me, and I've got a video that is taking some time rendering, so I can't really do "real" work right now anyway... so its time for some more thoughts.  (MESSAGE FROM MY FUTURE SELF - This really is just a bunch of half-assembled musings on thoughts from the last few days.)

If you check out the comments on the latest Skeptic Blog post by skepticism's civil-shepherd, Daniel Loxton it seems that the debate is shifting into the question of "what exactly is a 'dick?'" - though there are plenty of other side-battles going on.  (Is PZ a dick?  Did Phil mean PZ?  Did PZ mean PZ?  Was Phil being a dick, calling people dicks?)  And I'm beginning to think that the real root of the issue falls in the word.  Daniel encourages us not to get hung up on the word - and that is probably a good idea... but it's probably too late.

I get that Phil was referencing the DBAD meme as per Wil Wheaton.  As he was speaking to a geek-skewed crowd that was, on the surface, a sound choice... but it seems to have backfired.  Everyone seems to have their own interpretation of what "being a dick" is, and not many of them align - particularly on opposite sides of the debate.  (And hey, I live the consequences of a similar choice, having made liberal use of the term "asshole skeptic.")

It has been said - just scroll through the comments to Daniel's post for examples - that Phil phailed to be specific.  Not naming names is politically understandable, but has not helped.  But some narrower parameters than what he did say about what he means by being a dick would have helped... a lot.  He does point out in the second part of his follow up that he "talk[ed] specifically about people who are insulting and demeaning."  But that has been drowned out by the word... "DICK."

We all have our own interpretation of what that entails.  Some of us, as per Barb Drescher (I spoke to several people who admitted to fleeting thoughts that they had prompted this speech somehow and I could not help feeling this way myself. That is testimony to the timeliness of it.) felt, listening to it that we might be "part of the problem" (if you accept that it it a problem).  Others are presumed to being looking down from their place amoungst the angels, coming up with their own uncharitable definitions.  And probably most people fall into the sub-category of imagining that there is some ill-defined cadre of pooh-pooh-ers who are perched up on their higher-moral-ground casting judgement out of fingers that only point in one direction... and we are dispensing shame upon ourselves for what we imagine the consensus opinion of "being a dick" is.   ...or maybe I'm just projecting.  Is it any wonder people are frustrated?

But really, when it comes down to it, it doesn't matter what Phil meant, or tried to mean, 'cause clearly that message was eclipsed by what everyone else put upon it themselves and there's likely nothing he can do now, that will change that.  Your definition of being a dick may be as mild as "assuming a negative vocal temperment" or "displaying sub-textual disapproval"; or as extreme as "calling someone a baby-raper to their face and not allowing them an opportunity for rebuttal." (I am not quoting anyone specifically, BTW.) But your target may have a different opinion, and a third-party observer may have a third definition. Which doesn't make reacting appropriately impossible, but it complicates things, and having to perform for the lowest common denominator is usually a recipe for mediocrity.  So I guess I don't really know what we are expected to do.

For starters even the best of my better angels got their vocabulary from Guns 'n' Roses.  And there is an oft mis-understood (though not amoungst skeptics of course... right?) belief surrounding the ad hominem fallacy that just because a person calls someone a bad name (like a "dick", for example) that that invalidates their argument.  (Phil is NOT saying this, BTW.)   The ad hominem fallacy is only a fallacy if the argument follows that a person is wrong because they are a dick (or whatever.)  That's a bit of a tangent, but I think the edges of it are banging up around the perimeter of this debate.

Skepticism is frustrating territory.  (Indeed, right now I'm really only writing (and by now rambling) because I am deep in the black-waters of a high "why the fuck are we having this discussion?" sea.)

Okay, reeling my thought process back in now...

Despite Phil's efforts to define and promote his definition of being a dick, the simple fact that this argument will not settle down into a definition speaks to the fact that there is a continuum of potential dickishness to be debated.  Are Penn and Teller dicks?  What kind of dicks?  How about Crislip's not-as-scathing-as-he -thinks-but-the-intention-to-ridcule-is-there diatribes?  What about that Asshole Skeptic guy?  Or the second smugiest person on the planet next to Kevin Spacey, Brian Dunning?  Ya know, sometimes even Evan "too nice to be a skeptic" Bernstein is a dick in some people's eyes.

With so many flavours of dick to suck on (yeah, I went there) why are we even trying to limit this to the "don't call people bad-names" definition?  Like it or not, it is human nature to want to "kick the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight."  I maintain that eliminating dickishness amoungst skeptics is as syssiphian as any grander skeptical goal, and that trying to do anything more than ameliorate the most egregious examples is to waste a lot of better-used effort on fruitless wheel-spinning.

Now, I'm not a scientist of any stripe.  But one of the articles cited as evidence ('cause we all reached for our "wheres your evidence?" guns that ridicule is not an effective tool doesn't appear in my mind to be as damning towards "jeer pressure" (their term) as the olive branch corps would have you believe... at least not from the abstract.
Results of both experiments showed that participants who viewed ridicule of others were more conforming and more afraid of failing than were those who viewed self-ridicule or no ridicule.
That is not the same as thinking for yourself, but it does not exclude it.  The abstract actually states that "Creativity was not influenced by the humor manipulation."  In any case, I am a layman interpreting an abstract, and even if my incomplete, civilian interpretation of the summary is accurate, it's just one study.  Perhaps someone who is qualified can better levy an interpretation?

I'm not a psychologist.  But I am qualified to speak to another segment of communication.  Entertainment, narrative and the role of conflict within.  (For those who don't already know, I am a writer, film-maker and award-winning playwright.)  One of the sub-goals of skeptics is to maintain the attention of the people we are trying to reach.  Anyone who has written drama or comedy succesfully will tell you how rare it is to craft a scene that holds anyone's attention if it doesn't have conflict in it.  Just try and name a film - I don't even have to qualify that with "a box-office hit" or "a film that you enjoy."  There will be precious few if any.  Someone might try to invalidate my point by noting that skeptical out-reach is closer to documentary... but the notion persists.  The most pervasive documentaries all hold a the same commonality - conflict.  "Will the funny fat-man convince GM to keep jobs in Flint?"  "Can the cute penguin survive it's Odyssian journey?"  "Will eating only McDonald's food kill the film's director?"  "Will those brave wheel-chair athletes beat those nasty Canadians at the Para-lympics?"  Conflict is compelling. 

Anyhow... that is a discussion for a different day.

But I will point out that this particular increasingly ironic conflict in our ranks is definitely holding the attention of many skeptics.......or maybe I'm just projecting.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Don't Be a Dork about Being a Dick

When I first heard from returning attendees about the over-arching theme that developed at TAM8 this year, largely focussed on Phil Plait's now infamous (in skeptical circles) "Don't Be a Dick" talk, my first thought was "damn it all!  This was clearly NOT the year for me to miss TAM."  (Though I have to admit I did miss it for the right reasons.)

Last week at Skeptic in the Pub here in Vancouver we watched the (then freshly posted) video of the talk.  I was actually in the other room when skepticism's ultimate fan-boy, Fred "Nowoo" Bremmer, came out and said "you're going to want to watch this."  He was right.  And predictably when we were finished the first comment was directed at the "Asshole Skeptic"... "So, Kennedy...."

Before I get too deep into this I want to make something clear (again): The name of this blog is misleading.  Though I began in a more strident place I have backed away from the extremities.  I DO NOT advocate being a jerk to individuals on a face to face basis.  Berating people is not an effective way of reaching the people you are hollering at.

From that you can probably extrapolate that my position is roughly that I agree with much of what Phil says.  But think he is missing some important points and angles. 

I won't get into a lot of details, as by now this part of the conversation has become well-worn.  But a few things that spring to mind: the passion of a furious argument can communicate the value of the argument (more so to by-standers than to the target of the anger); we will never reach everyone by winning over people one at a time, occassionally one (preferably unreachable) credulite must be thrown under the bus in order to stop the whole vehicle from going over the cliff... which is to say you can afford to lose one person permanently if it means demonstrating to others how wrong the target is and thus winning a net-positive amount of people's rationality (how we measure that, I admit I do not know, but that in itself doesn't invalidate the practice, it merely makes it harder to assess your results); someone needs to be able to stand toe to toe and be heard above (or at least beside) those who don't argue in good faith, and speak on a level that cuts to the bottom line on skeptical issues and speaks to values, 'cause most people don't give a shit about the double-blind, randomized, controlled, peer-reviewed data (even typing it out is boring); more on boring - cutting to the chase and eviscerating an opponent's argument in a public fashion is good entertainment, and people want to be entertained... if the message that their way of thinking needs re-assesment piggy-backs on that, so much the better; if some of us make the rest of you look less "out there" (pushing the Overton window) we are ultimately moving the cause forward. 
I could go on, but I'm already repeating things I have said in previous posts and things that have already come up in this specific debate.

This morning there was a bit of a snit on Twitter between Daniel Loxton and PZ Meyers.  It seems to have run out of steam in the time I've been writing this.  But the debate is far from over.

So, here is what I am seeing.  (But keep in mind there is a LOT out there that has been written on this subject in the past five weeks - and even more this past week - so I really can't claim to have seen it all.)

To simplify things, there are two sides.  The Olive Branchers are staunchly in the Don't Be a Dick camp, and the Asshole Skeptics are in the "Be a Dick When it Works" camp.  Generally speaking both are doing a lot of "show me the evidence that you are right!" shouting and neither is ponying up with research of their own.  Or when they do it is narrow and only marginally connected.

The Twitter-spat this morning typified a lot of what I've been seeing.  The Olive Branch skeptics seem to be arguing (still) that taking people on face to face is never going to win them over.  While the Asshole Skeptics are saying "nyah nyah, you can't stop us!"

Simpilfying the debate like that is a bit of a strawman, but it is a LOT of what is going on.  There is plenty of detail that falls outside of those boundaries, but much of that detail is irrelevant if we can address and solve the core argument, which frankly, is a bunch of B.S.

Yes, virtually all of us agree that being a dick to someone is never going to change their mind.

As Phil asks "what is your goal?"  If your goal is to win over said opponent, then yes Phil, vitriol and venom is not the right approach.  But in many cases when Asshole Skeptics employ vitriol and venom, their goal is not to win over that person, it is to affect the views of those watching the exchange.  Sylvia Browne is never going to give in and admit she's full of crap, but making her look abjectly foolish will help those who are curious about her see that she is a fraud.

Phil states quite clearly that his goal is to show people how to think rationally.  "Teach a man to fish..." he says.  And he would not be the world class educator he is if he did it by harangueing people.  Conversely, I would suggest Showtime would have pulled "Penn & Teller's Super-happy Coddle the Audience's Self-image Hour" after the first season.

Phil used the metaphor of a hammer and how to use it properly or you might destroy the wall.  But there are different types of hammers for different jobs.  Some hammers are even designed to destroy walls.  Different vocations require a different set of hammers.  A jeweller would never use a sledge-hammer to cut a diamond. A renovator would never use a jeweller's hammer to take down a wall.  A renovator would hopefully never take down a supporting wall, and there is some skill in determining which walls are holding up the structure.

I've said this a dozen or more times in this blog, that wielding the tools in the Asshole Skeptic toolbox is not an easy game.  Most people should not be doing it, or at least need to be doing it with extreme care.  I know of what I speak.  I have blown it myself.  I was in a yelling match with a truther at SitP once where my buttons got pushed.  I'm not proud of this.  I'll say that again: I AM NOT PROUD OF THIS.  That person has NEVER come back to SitP.  I personally lost that person.  But I did learn an object lesson in how easy it is to screw up.  And I'll bet that just about everyone has found themselves arguing in unproductive manners at one time or another.  Every skeptic has brought the house down upon themselves at one time or another by using the wrong tool on the wrong wall.

The issue is not that some skeptics act like dicks.  It is that too many people who haven't taken the time to consider how best to communicate thier message behave like dicks, because it seems like the easy path.  It seems to be simpler to mouth-off in defence of rational reality than to read up and get to the core of that reality.  But it isn't.  Anyone can come up with a nasty sounding expletive and call Jenny McCarthy a baby-killer.  It IS that easy.  But that is not skepticism.  It looks like skepticism, 'cause yes, you are on the same side that rational thought would bring you to.

Being an effective asshole skeptic is tough.  In order to do it well you not only need to know your way around the issues you discuss (as well or better than an Olive Branch skeptic would) but you also have to have a sense of when to best turn on the Dick and when to leave it alone.  I don't claim to be an effective asshole skeptic, I just claim to have been thinking about it a lot over the past fifteen months or more.

Seeing PZ and Daniel duke it out this morning kind of hurt.

PZ is going to appear near the top of anyone's list of Asshole Skeptics.  And for those of us who appreciate this brand of communication, we know that he does do a pretty good job of it.  His default leans towards all-asshole all-the-time, but he is so accustomed to working in that space that he is an expert of whether to use an 8lb, a 12lb or a 15lb sledge hammer.  He is not the sort of person who needs to be lectured by Phil Plait or any Olive Branch skeptic.  He is exactly the sort who is going to say "nyah nyah you can't stop me" back.  (And indeed practically did to Daniel.)  And I don't think that kind of in-fighting is necessary.

The "you can't stop me" argument is pretty much a given.  And I think the Olive Branch skeptics need to cede that ground where those who accompish theior goals well with it are concerned. 

Thus far in the debate there seems to me to be as much evidence that being a dick works (when wll targetted and wielded) as that it doesn't, so why are we wasting our time with this when we can be arguing people who really are responsible for (passively) killing babies, and showing them for who the really are?

When it comes to fighting the "dicks," what we need to be doing is counselling the loose-cannons who are habitually spitting vitriol for vitriol's sake.  Those who are feeding their bitterness at how stupid humanity is (and there is a lot of stupidity and consequent bitterness) into a feedback loop, rather than going out and learning more about how to debate, how to apply their wit, and how to do effective research on subjects they aren't experts at.  Those are the people who need to either stop being dicks, or learn how to do it much more effectively and quit getting in the way losing as many people as they win cheap "gotcha" points.

Let's use the tools we are already accustomed to wielding expertly and effectively.  'Cause seriously, if we are hell bent on first settling this internal fracas of fighting words we'll never get on to fighting the woo.