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.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. Just wanted to comment on the jeer pressure paper, since ultimately (I think) it came into the discussion via me.

    The article itself discusses conformity and the use of jeer pressure. As such, for those who feel they are a part of a particular community, the use of ridicule is a strong social tool that increases compliance and shared beliefs. I used it not to show that ridicule never works (a bit of a strawman that clings to life, for some reason), but that the goals it works for should be defined properly.

    As lively as it is, the discussion is such a tangled web of definitions, ideas and goals that it's hard to tease apart and get some useful debate on. There are a lot of questions being raised that have been a long time coming in skepticism, and the answers will vary considerably within the movement. But if skeptics are going to succeed in whatever goals they hope to achieve, then there needs to be an informed discussion on what works and what doesn't, and a change in culture that values a skeptical approach towards outreach efforts rather than the wishful thinking and whole lot of finger crossing.