Skeptics and parallel rationalist communities spend a lot of time on “inside baseball” — jargon-filled debates about technical matters that seem incomprehensible, dull, or ridiculous to outsiders. These shouldn’t be the main skeptical topics (shouldn’t we be busy solving mysteries and educating the public?) but some discussion on these matters is unavoidable and worthwhile. Many movement-oriented skeptics and organizations have things they hope to accomplish; with goals, there comes discussion of best practices.
Among these insider debates, none is more persistent than that of “tone.” Hardly a week goes by that some tone-related tempest doesn’t spill out of its teacup and across the blogosphere. And yet, these issues matter to many (including me). When people devote enormous energy to skepticism, dedicate careers to skeptical outreach, or generously commit volunteer hours or donations to skeptical projects and organizations, it’s natural that abstract internal debates about the soul of skepticism are perceived to have powerful importance.
The passions of many have been swept up in the ongoing scrap about Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” speech at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s “Amazing Meeting 8″ conference in Las Vegas. The skeptical blogosphere began buzzing even as Plait delivered the speech, and hasn’t yet stopped. The debate has reached a new level of feverishness in recent days, after Plait posted the entire video of the speech online. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s a powerful speech which is well worth your time.)
The flood of reactions — many hundreds of lengthy comments, dozens of blog posts and a teeming ecosystem of competing tweets — seem to have broken down along two main axes of debate. One axis defends (or challenges) Plait’s factual assertion that civility tends to help skeptical communication, while incivility tends to hinder it. The other axis concerns moral values.
Talking Past Each Other
The empirical dispute about the effectiveness of civility has sometimes devolved to a clash of straw men. As PZ Myers responded,
It’s a little annoying. Everybody seems to imagine that if Granny says “Bless you!” after I sneeze, I punch her in the nose, and they’re all busy dichotomizing the skeptical community into the nice, helpful, sweet people who don’t rock the boat and the awful, horrible, bastards in hobnailed boots who stomp on small children in Sunday school.
I can relate. I’m similarly exasperated when it is suggested that “nice” skeptics are trying to enforce uniformity; or it is imagined that Phil’s speech was secretly “yet another attempt to erect a skepticism-free barrier around theistic beliefs”; or it is supposed that anyone wants to take anger and passion out of the skeptics toolbox; or, even, argued that “nice” skeptics want to “go with the flow, to pretend that a thousand issues, whether it’s homeopathy or religion or transcendental meditation or an absence of critical thinking or a lack of concern about our health, are OK because they make people happy.” Where does this stuff even come from?
All this noise conceals a non-trivial amount of consensus. In general, everyone actually agrees that passion, anger, comedy, and ridicule can be useful in the right context, 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. (Consider PZ’s stated position: “I think the best ideas involve a combination of willingness to listen and politely engage, and a forthright core of assertiveness and confrontation — tactical dickishness, if you want to call it that.” To me, this sounds surprisingly similar to Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” argument: “Anger is a very potent weapon, and we need that weapon, but we need to be excruciatingly careful how we use it.”)
In other places, the effectiveness debate has bogged down in red herrings. For example, Richard Dawkins complained that
Plait naively presumed, throughout his lecture, that the person we are ridiculing is the one we are trying to convert. …when I employ ridicule against the arguments of a young earth creationist, I am almost never trying to convert the YEC himself. … I am trying to influence all the third parties listening in, or reading my books. I am amazed at Plait’s naivety in overlooking that and treating it as obvious that our goal is to convert the target of our ridicule.
This is a serious misreading of Plait’s intent, and I think rather baffling. Phil Plait is an experienced public figure, a career science communicator. Of course he knows (as I know, and as Dawkins knows) that our largest and best opportunity for outreach is often the wider audience of third-party onlookers.
Indeed, the audience of onlookers are exactly where the empirical question matters most.
How do audiences react when they see communicators speak aggressively or employ ridicule? Dawkins’ feeling about ridicule is that “I suspect that it is very effective,” but we needn’t rely on suspicion. Nor must we settle for intuitions, anecdotes (“just look at South Park”) or arguments from internal dialogue. This question has been tested.
The scientific evidence cited so far in this debate clearly favors the “don’t be a dick” argument. For example, it turns out that audiences to substantial issues debates think less of debaters who insult their opponents, engage in ad hominems, or attack the other’s competence or character.
The distinction the literature makes is between argumentativeness (the making of firm substantial points, which witnesses respect) and aggressiveness (cheap shots, basically, or ad hominems: character attacks, competence attacks, background attacks, ridicule, and so on) — which witnesses penalize. For example, the 1992 study “Initiating and Reciprocating Verbal Aggression: Effects on Credibility and Credited Verbal Arguments” found that onlookers to a debate are more impressed with arguments like these when the insults (in parentheses) are not included:
CON: [I can't believe you actually like that Canadian system! The idea's stupid!] Matt, the basic fallacy is the Canadian system puts government into the health care business. The surest way for failure is to let government do it. Haven’t we learned our lesson about central planning? Isn’t the Soviet Union having a bit of trouble with the concept?
PRO: [You Reagan conservatives sound like a broken record. You have the same objection for everything.] Government isn’t always bad, Steve. The government should be involved in some things. Would you like our national defense to be run by the private sector…
Moreover, the greater the number of verbally aggressive statements a debater makes in an exchange, the less receptive audiences are to that aggressor. Audiences find debaters who initiate verbal attacks less competent and of poorer character than their opponents — and find the attacker’s arguments less persuasive. (Audiences expect targets of verbal aggression to stand up for themselves, but nonetheless penalize targets who retaliate by matching the initiator’s level of aggressiveness.) To underline a key point: stooping to incivility has an own-goal cost despite the aggressive debater’s substantive points. Similarly, research indicates that college students find instructors less credible when they engage in insult and verbal abuse. In short, incivility makes it harder to teach people — just as Phil Plait has argued. (For an even-handed, quickie introduction to these issues, see Mike McRae’s recent “A Ridiculous Essay on Rational Outreach.”)
The finding that people don’t like bullies is perhaps unsurprising. I’ll leave it there (I am, after all, not a psychologist) and turn to an argument I’m more qualified to make: the argument from my own subjective moral values.
I have long argued that skepticism should not wade into non-empirical debates about faith, metaphysics, political ideology, or personal moral values. It is not the business of science to endorse unprovable statements of personal belief. After all, there’s a word for the attempt to attach scientific authority to whatever subjective beeswax we happen to like: pseudoscience.
And yet, it is no surprise that there is a moral dimension to debates about tone. The central question in tone debates is often said to be effectiveness, but the fierceness of the debate underlines a more visceral disagreement on a more human question: How ought people to treat each other?
Science can’t tell us the answer. Scientific skepticism can’t tell us what’s morally right — but the moral values we bring with us from outside of science can motivate us to do the hard work of science and skepticism. Trying to do what’s right is the reason I got involved in skepticism in the first place. As a humanist, as a person of conscience, I am motivated to promote rigorous scientific skepticism because nonsense hurts people. I’ve argued that
Skeptics have the privilege and burden of knowing that wrongs are going unchallenged, wrongs no one else cares about (or even recognizes). That knowledge places on us an ethical responsibility to do whatever we can.
I know I’m not alone in seeing rigorous skepticism as something that matters — as a means of helping people. Decades of skeptics have been motivated by the knowledge that people get hurt when pseudoscientific belief burns out of control. As JREF President DJ Grothe argued in his NECSS 2010 keynote address “Skepticism is a Humanism,” skepticism is “more than just a club for our little cognitive minority…to get together and congratulate each other on how smart we are.” When skeptics come together for mutual bellyaching, or self-identify as part of a movement, or take action, or speak out against false beliefs,
We’re responding to an ethical imperative that most of us feel. It’s something we express when we rage against a huckster or a charlatan. … It’s obvious that skepticism is not just about what’s true and what’s false, but what’s right and what’s wrong. … When we get riled up because a huckster is peddling quack medicine, it’s because quack medicine harms people, and we know that it’s wrong to harm people.
The Moral Argument for Not Being a Dick
I could almost save myself a couple thousand words in this essay by just writing “mean people suck” — or (as one person quoted to me on Twitter) “be excellent to each other.” I find myself astonished that it’s necessary to make this case at all.
Nonetheless, it is argued on humanist principle that “Every person needs to be accorded a modicum of respect and dignity” — even online. If I may side with the quaint schoolmarmish view, I agree: it is a moral wrong to intentionally elect to treat people badly.
There’s really no way around this: it may sometimes be necessary to say things people don’t want to hear, but, in itself, cruelty is morally bad. This is such a fundamental, self-evident moral truth that I’m really lost as soon as anyone disputes it.
Phil wisely left his argument general, inviting us to confront our own conscience. But he is right that it is trivially easy to find examples — not only of self-described skeptics being unkind, but also those who argue that it is good to be mean. For example, one blogger followed up her criticism of Plait’s speech (“Pissed me off something hardcore having to sit through him lecturing me about being too mean to people”) with the forthright assertion,
I like vitriol and venom. I like it, I enjoy it, I think it’s fun and I enjoy reading it and listening to it. A witty verbal riposte is like sex to me. … I like hate, I think it’s fucking sweet, particularly when applied by someone with great acumen and a large vocabulary.
I don’t really have a reply for that.
Some accept the basic moral argument for kindness and respect, but counter that they carry a moral obligation to aggressively speak the truth — even when doing so requires fierce confrontation. I’m sympathetic to that sentiment (I’m in the business of exposing nonsense, after all), and indeed, so is Phil Plait.
Luckily, we rarely need to choose between passion and kindness, or between honesty and respect. Here we come again to the distinction the scientific literature makes on this topic, between argumentativeness (presenting the actual case) and aggressiveness (personal attack in addition to— or instead of — valid argument).
It has been complained that the “don’t be a dick” position offers no program or solutions. I think it does. It’s an obvious solution, and the science backs it up:
Skeptics should passionately argue the merits of their case, and we should leave the ad hominems and snarling and hyperbole to the bad guys.
Even if you don’t buy the moral argument, the ethics of scientific discourse imply that ad hominem attacks are inappropriate. I submit that science-minded people should either care about ethical conduct or give up on the conceit that we are science-minded.
The ethical norms of the scientific enterprise ask us to be honest, to assume good faith, to give heterodox ideas a chance, engage in collegial exchanges of opposing opinion, publish under our own names, make data available to our critics, and so on. None of that is based upon moral goodness, but on the pragmatic recognition that science functions best when the greatest number of practitioners adopt a shared code of conduct (and a shared rejection of scientific misconduct). Most skeptics are not scientists, but we are well-advised to think of science as an ethos that fosters truth-seeking. (Similar norms apply to journalism, and presumably to those bloggers who take on a journalistic role.)
And so, I will close with two questions. Weren’t we the ones who said we were after the actual truth? And — weren’t we the good guys?
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