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.


  1. Thank you, I couldn't have said it better. I experienced Phil's talk first hand at TAM8, and though it lacked proper examples, I agreed with his take - also supported by other speakers for rather scientific reasons. I agree that "both" sides (there are more, as always) in this argument miss some points.

    For me, in a nutshell, it is exactly the question of whether you want to convince / educate someone directly, or you are in a heated debate with a believer or woo-pusher that will never be convinced, but it is important to squash him to set an example or provide proper counter-arguments for the onlookers. You shouldn't be a dick when you try to educate someone, but it sure helps to make yourself heard against another dick - not to convince him, but others.

  2. Thanks for this!! I also was at TAM8, and I just found Phil's speech weird. (Personally speaking, I paid to hear people speak on their expertise, not necessarily on their feelings. It would have been a fine conversation for later on in the bar or something.)

    To me, most people know not to just going around being a jerk off for no reason, so parts of it came across as kinda preachy to me. I wasn't a fan of it, but I still do think I'm kind of a sweet person, even when religion comes up. On the other hand, I do like to make fun occasionally, too, so if that's being mean, then guilty... :)

  3. I'm firmly on the Asshole Skeptic side of things, particularly when it comes to dietary/health "advice".

    I've wondered if Phil Plait was a M.D. or another health professional, would he be so accommodating to those who can actually cause harm to others by perpetuating misinformation about diseases and their treatments?

    I don't believe he would.

    To me, this "debate" just seems like some people wanting to be more popular or liked, not necessarily being interested in calling bullshit when it is, or increasing levels of inquiry when it's not.

  4. I'd agree with a couple points, and differ from you on some others.

    To begin with, you're right that "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." Indeed, Plait said as much in his TAM8 speech: "Anger is a very potent weapon, and we need that weapon, but we need to be excruciatingly careful how we use it."

    You're also right to suggest that there is more consensus on this question than it appears. For example, no one anywhere actually thinks there can be a unified, homogenous tone shared by all skeptics in all situations. Suggestions to the contrary misread the "don't be a dick" position.

    Likewise, everyone agrees that passion, anger, comedy, and ridicule can be useful when used carefully and well. Everyone agrees that face to face conversations are best conducted with kindness and respect. Everyone (PZ included) agrees that fact-based, collegial discourse is often-but-not-always the best outreach strategy.

    Also (and I think this is an important point which often gets lost), everyone agrees with Richard Dawkins'comment that the wider third-party audience are often the ones skeptics should consider most in our outreach. Dawkins thinks that, you think that, I think that — and Phil Plait thinks that as well. Dawkins not correct to think that "Plait naively presumed, throughout his lecture, that the person we are ridiculing is the one we are trying to convert." Of course Plait knows that is only part of the story.

    So, the factual question then becomes, how do third party audiences react when they see communicators speak aggressively? Well, it turns out there is science on that. As a tip of the ice-berg token, I've cited a couple studies or two that suggest audiences are on average less receptive to speakers who employ verbal aggression (including insults), and more receptive to people who seem warm and friendly. Other skeptics (notably Tribal Scientist) have cited research showing roughly the same thing.

    I don't think it's true that there is "as much evidence that being a dick works (when wll targetted and wielded) as that it doesn't" — or at least, the evidence cited so far (however "narrow and only marginally connected") seems to be quite one-sided. To the best of my knowledge, no one has yet cited any scientific research showing the benefits of insult or confrontational tactics.

    I take it for granted that the literature must be more mixed than we've seen so far, so I renew my invitation: "Accommodationists and confrontationists, 'asshole skeptics' and nice guy skeptics, firebrands and cuddly bunnies: can you support your intuitions with data? Ante up."

  5. Biopunk - While I can't speak for Phil, I actually did work in medicine. Not as an MD, but while I was a medical scientist I was responsible for phlebotomy and diagnostics in the accident and emergency and intensive care departments. I became involved in skeptical outreach precisely because of what I experienced during this time.

    I can't say I was never angry. I was. But rather than just vent, I really wanted to know how to change things beyond the superficial or illusory. So I abandoned that profession and studied education. From there I went into science communication, and currently am doing a master of medical anthropology, still focused on uncovering the most efficient ways to change minds. I wanted to use science to understand how we develop our beliefs (and how to change them) in the same way we use science to understand anything else in this universe.

    Few skeptics go down that path, which is fine. I've been fortunate in having the time and resources to devote to such studies. What is sad is that most skeptics choose instead to rely on assumptions, intuition and anecdotes to support their choice of method in public communication.

    This debate on effective outreach has shown that skeptics aren't immune from indulging in the false logic and poor reasoning. While a few have indeed made appeals to look critically at the evidence, most have repeated the same unfounded claims, backing it up with little more than personal anecdotes and opinion. There have been few calls for more dedication of resources to evaluation or seeking of expertise in the matter.

    Promoting effective thinking skills and values in logic and reason is difficult. It conflicts with our natural tendencies to think socially. To have a hope of being successful we need to turn that love of science and demand for evidence back on ourselves and look at how we communicate. Otherwise we risk not only being ineffective - we risk making it harder for others to succeed at all.

  6. @biopunk

    A casual browsing of Phil's "Bad Astronomy" blog should reveal that he is quite active in publicizing the dangers of anti-vax nonsense. It's confrontation where confrontation counts.

  7. Argh.
    And here is why I was kind of avoiding this issue this long....

    This has been one of the busiest few months of my life and I simply don't have the time I wish I had to read and research on this subject as much as I'd like to and that it deserves... and as my girlfriend is giving birth sometime between tomorrow and three weeks from now, I'm not likely to have more time to get into things as much as someone whose blog is titled "Confessions of an Asshole Skeptic" should.

    Geez guys, couldn't you have waited 'til TAM 9 to kick this hornets nest?

    Anyhow... yeah I've failed to provide evidence too. But I felt like I had to post something or forego the title of "Asshole Skeptic" and all I had was the thoughts that have poked me in the eye as I lay down to sleep each night.

    Anyhow... I'll do what I can to hold up my end of the bargain, but don't expect any answers while this is still a hot topic.