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Bring on the Science of Honey and Vinegar

by Daniel Loxton, Jul 02 2010

Images from "Mecanisme de la Physionomie Humaine," which Charles Darwin used as a source for his research into human expression and emotion

Alongside the moral and ethical arguments about “tone,” skeptical debate about the effectiveness of various communication strategies goes ’round and ’round perpetually.

But why is the effectiveness question so often treated as a debate between competing intuitions? In a recent comment, Steven Novella suggested to me that skeptics should “be tolerant of each other’s different approaches to the public, since no one has the final answer. As the psychological literature progresses, however, we may have better informed opinions.”

But is the psychological jury still out? Science has been looking at people, our interactions, and the ways in which we learn and communicate for quite a while. (Did you know there’s a substantial body of scientific research on just the topic of smiling?)

Therefore, as a skeptic, I want to know: what has science learned about communication?

Bring On the Science

And so, I throw open this thread for discussion of the data. I invite psychologists, marketers, educators, lay skeptics, and the world at large to share specific citations of specific scientific research bearing on the issue of tone. Let’s leave aside instincts, opinions, ethics, and morality, and just look at the empirical question:

What has science discovered about the roles of likability, empathy, aggression, and ridicule in communication, marketing, and education? Nominate (and describe) relevant research papers in the comments field below.

I’ll open with this paper from 1978 — not because it settles the question, but because it’s funny:

Tidd, Kathi L. and Joan S. Lockard. “Monetary significance of the affiliative smile: A case for reciprocal altruism.” Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society Vol. 11, No. 6, 344-346. 1978.

Finding: In this study, cocktail waitresses received dramatically larger tips (from both male and female customers) when greeting customers with a big toothy smile rather than a “minimal smile (mouth corners noticeably turned up but no teeth showing).”

Robynn McCarthy's sunny smile

Science says a smile goes a long way!

This does not seem surprising to me. Human interactions involve more than just an exchange of information or services. We tend to be more receptive to people who signal friendliness. Is this finding generalizable to skeptical communication? I suspect it is. (That is why I put so much effort into preparing huge photos of smiling skeptics for use in outreach material.)

(For more on the impact that strategies for increasing likability have upon tipping, see for example Lynn, Michael. “Seven Ways to Increase Servers’ Tips.” Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 3, 24-29. 1996)

And now it’s your turn. Accommodationists and confrontationists, “asshole skeptics” and nice guy skeptics, firebrands and cuddly bunnies: can you support your intuitions with data? Ante up.

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45 Responses to “Bring on the Science of Honey and Vinegar”

  1. Mike McRae says:

    Here’s two quick references worth considering:

    The more aggressive the speaker, the less credible they are deemed to be and less able to appear to present a valid argument (Infante, D.A., et al, (1992), Initiating and reciprocating verbal aggression: effects on credibility and credited valid arguments, Communication Studies, 43:3, pp 182-190)

    Aggressive language reduces desire for verbal interaction, as investigations of argument progression between individual dyads has demonstrated that verbal aggression is inversely associated with the proportion of argument: (Semic B.A., Canary D.J., (1997) Trait argumentativeness, verbal aggressiveness, and minimally rational argument, Communication Quarterly 45(4) pg. 355)

    I’ll have a more detailed essay on the topic of ridicule and the psychology of aggressive language coming soon. :) But those two studies are a good launch point for discussion at least.

    • Podblack says:

      There’s a new interview with Chabris & Simons about their recent book The Invisible Gorilla (2010), which details the ‘Illusion of Confidence’ – on the Token Skeptic podcast coming out very soon. :)

  2. badrescher says:

    My response is a big-picture thing which involves integrating a lot of literature. Some of it is old enough that people can Google it easily and some is not. Considering the time commitment involved in citing specific literature, I’ll offer this: I’ll name names and concepts whenever possible and anyone who would like a specific reference for a specific statement, feel free to send me email and I will respond with citations or post a list for all. Fair enough?

    I hear you and I do not disagree with it in principle. I’ll repeat that I strongly feel that positive, pleasant, and polite are the ideals and what we should all strive for. I’ll go further and say that the literature agrees. Facial feedback also suggests that when you smile, you feel happier, so it’s a win-win. Waitresses who touch a customer lightly on the shoulder earn more tips, too. Persuasive techniques like the 2-sided appeal are pretty effective.

    However, ideals are ideals and I do not think a one-size-fits-all strategy is practical.

    But I would also like to note: I do not agree with Steve Novella’s suggestion to “tolerate everyone’s style”, either. This is a sentiment I hear often in and out of this community, but it is twisted when people overgeneralize the principle that we should respect others in a way which is very similar to the concept of “teaching the controversy”. We should respect that others have a right to their viewpoints; that does not mean that we have to respect the viewpoint itself. This extends to views of how we deal with the public. Not all “ways to do skepticism/atheism/feminism” (I really hate that wording) are effective and I see nothing wrong with discussing those strategies and criticizing them – criticizing the strategies, not the people who use them, although many do not seem to understand the difference.

    If we can agree that the “default” approach should be the approach which is most effective, then polite wins often. However, situations vary a great deal and I personally feel that constant worry over my wording and tone will result in my complete withdrawal from the community. I cannot live that way and I cannot keep my mouth shut.

    The confirmation bias is, in my opinion, the strongest determiner of human behavior of any of our known cognitive tendencies. “Nice” rarely gets through that wall.

    Unfortunately, most of our interactions are not things like buying a drink or selling a stereo. We are often trying to convince people to abandon things about which they are passionate and/or to get people to admit that they might be wrong about something. It’s a very, very rare person who can swallow their pride like that or even just open their mind.

    There’s some interesting literature about that, too, and it’s worth talking about. Stanovich’s most recent work (with West in particular) has been to tease out the missing link between intelligence and rational thought processes. In this field, there is a long list of cognitive tasks which demonstrate a predictable set of errors. Through a series of studies, Stanovich has divided this into two lists: one which highly intelligent people do correctly, and one which only a subset of highly intelligent people do correctly.

    This means that you can divide the list of highly intelligent people in two. The difference between those groups of people seems to be open-mindedness.

    My point? Tone doesn’t matter so much if you’re not going to make headway because you cannot unseat the belief or open the mind of the person you are trying to convince. The goal then becomes to leave criticism which will prompt bystanders to think about what you are saying. Sometimes that criticism can be civil and sometimes we need to defend ourselves with something a little stronger.

    Emotion can also carry an argument when reason cannot. It is not something I advocate as a strategy because I find it somewhat underhanded to take advantage of a known cognitive bias, but we fall into that naturally, sometimes regretfully. Still, it is not always a bad thing to have a little bit of anger if anger is an appropriate response.

    And there’s another thing: There are really only so many ways to say “you’re wrong” or to question someone about something you know will put them on the defensive. You might be the nicest person on the planet, and someone will cringe when they read something you say that they don’t want to hear. “Tone” is a bit subjective.

    In any case, though, ridicule is rarely an appropriate response. And that is where I will leave it.

    • Leo says:

      Thanks Barbara. Stanovich’s work is something I’ll have to check out. You’re quite right that the question isn’t just what tone to take, but what tone is best in context of what message you’re trying to communicate and whom you’re trying to communicate it to. One of the problems in trying to have this discussion is both sides often reduce each other’s position to the ridiculous (“we always should be nice”, “we can be as hostile as we want”). I’m not saying Daniel does that of course. He doesn’t.

    • bad – by point was that discusion on tone should be evidenced based. But almost 100% of the time people cite what they feel, or at best anecdotes. That is not compelling.

      I recommend tolerance in the face of uncertainty – not against the evidence.

      I like Daniels approach. While I am familiar with some research, stepping back and actually trying to get a better grasp on the breadth of research is a good idea. We would benefit from someone who is already familiar with the literature – it’s hard to grasp such a complex question with a scattershot approach.

      • badrescher says:

        Thank you for the clarification. I would not argue with any of that.

        I am most concerned with the perversion of concepts of tolerance that I often see in defense of their actions and approaches, even in the face of evidence-based arguments, which often takes the form of “that’s your way of ‘doing skepticism/atheism/feminism’. You just don’t like my way.”

  3. Podblack says:

    “For more than 40 years, studies have revealed that encouraging the expression of anger directly toward another person or indirectly (such as towards and object) actually turns up the heat on aggression (Bushman, Baumeister, & Stack, 1999; Lewis & Bucher, 1992; Littrell, 1998; Tarvis, 1988). In one of the earliest studies, people who pounded nails after someone insulted them were more, rather than less, critical of that person (Hornberger, 1959)…
    …So getting angry doesn’t ‘let off steam': it merely fans the flames of our anger. Research suggests that expressing anger is helpful only when it’s accompanied by constructive problem-solving designed to address the source of the anger (Littrell, 1998)… Calmly and assertively expressing one’s resentment… can go a long way towards resolving conflict.”
    In addition: “Changing people’s behaviors is often the best way to change their prejudiced attitudes”.

    The above is taken from ’50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology’ by Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio and Beyerstein.

  4. Podblack says:

    Swoopy has the cutest nose out of all the ‘I Am a Skeptic’ pictures featured on the site. Sturgess, 2010.

  5. Max says:

    Ah, the fascinating field of pop psychology, where we learn that presentation trumps content.
    Here’s one example, and there’s more where that came from.
    “We’re More Swayed by Confidence than Expertise”

    Massimo Pigliucci said that the problem with Psychology research is that even though there are reproducible experiments, it hasn’t really developed a theory over time. I guess it’s hard to extrapolate from lab experiments on college students playing games to real life situations.

    • badrescher says:

      Ah, the fascinating field of pop psychology, where we learn that presentation trumps content.

      Funny that the only comment so far which has dipped into “pop psychology” is yours. Such sarcasm on a thread about tone is pretty funny, too.

      Massimo Pigliucci said that the problem with Psychology research is that even though there are reproducible experiments, it hasn’t really developed a theory over time.

      Although I usually agree with Massimo Pigliucci on most matters, I will note that he is not a psychologist. I resent the characterization of my field as “lacking theory” and suggest that he (or you, if this is taken out of context) may simply be unfamiliar with psychological theory.

      People are highly complex creatures and it is difficult to convey the big picture when so many factors are involved. I believe my comment expressed this.

      • Max says:

        Thanks, irony is what I was going for.

        Is there a solid theory in Psychology like the theory of relativity in Physics and the theory of evolution in Biology?

      • badrescher says:

        There are MANY “solid” theories in psychology. It’s a very broad field. But it’s a soft science – very, very complex – so comparing it to physics and even biology is part of the problem, here.

        I can explain the basics of relativity or natural selection in about 15 minutes to a layperson with a high school education. I cannot explain opponent process theory or lateral inhibition in the same time frame to someone outside the field and expect them to buy into it without making any assumptions (such as trusting an authority who says that “neurons work this way”).

        And I certainly cannot boil social cognitive theory down to a single strategy for every interaction. But that doesn’t mean we know nothing about it.

      • Max says:

        Well the goal is to reduce it down to a strategy that we laymen can apply. That’s why I called it pop psychology.
        You know, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”

        -Show respect for the other person’s opinions.
        -Never tell someone they are wrong.
        -If you’re wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
        -Begin in a friendly way.
        -Start with questions the other person will answer yes to.
        -Let the other person do the talking.
        -Let the other person feel the idea is his/hers.
        -Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.
        -Sympathize with the other person.
        -Appeal to noble motives.
        -Dramatize your ideas.
        -Throw down a challenge.

      • JGB says:

        I’m an Astronomer and educator and I am surprised that anyone can cover the basics of relativity in 15 minutes. It usually takes me that much time to explain inertial frames of reference. Without understanding these relativity amounts to a vague version of “Everyone has her/his own point of view.”

        I am sure that you can explain *anything* at that level of vagueness in 15 minutes.

  6. Dan Kennan says:

    I’d be far more interested to see research on beliefs and how they change.

    Communication theory is interesting but it does not take into account how effective communication is when presenting information that challenges the recipient’s beliefs.

    I seem to have heard of studies that suggested that unless you like or identify with the person who is trying to convince you of something, you will not be persuaded…but I don’t know when or where. Anyone else recall details?

  7. JT13 says:

    I think this study may be a little self limiting and simplistic. Although a friendly smile most likely get a waitress larger tips poor service would get the waitress smaller tips. As an “asshole skeptic”(and cold reader) I don’t see any accommodation for other variables(noise) such as body language, overall appearance, tone or setting. In some settings a big toothy smile would give the appearance of being insincere. After all do you think that a big toothy smile would have the same effect with a door to door salesman? There is more to facial expressions than just the mouth.

    • Max says:

      The whole point of a science experiment is to test select variables while controlling other variables. You could say that it’s simplistic to test a drug only on people who aren’t taking any other drugs, but that’s how you know that the observed effects are caused by the drug being tested. Then, other experiments can test drug interactions.

    • badrescher says:

      To clarify (or add to) what Max said, variables such as body language & setting are not the topic of that particular experiment and cannot affect the outcome in an adequate sample size with random assignment. I noted a study which was conducted much later in which waitresses placed a hand on the customer’s shoulder. There is similar research with doctors and patients on a well-placed touch.

      It is a complex issue which requires us to integrate hundreds of studies, but those studies exist and demonstrate some predictable effects.

      • billgeorge says:

        JT has a point – perhaps the topic is too subjective for any hard science. (e.g. Mona Lisa, some love, others loathe.)

      • badrescher says:

        Measurable behavior is not subjective. What JT is talking about is variability and multiple factors, which is dealt with in experimental design.

      • badrescher says:

        I should clarify what I mean by “measurable behavior is not subjective”. Observation can certainly be subjective, but that, too is dealt with in design. What I mean is that we use operational definitions to create variables which *can* be measured and we limit or eliminate subjectivity, all as part of the design process.

  8. Derek Dadey says:

    Over the years I have studied this issue and come up with conclusive results. Whenever I correct someone’s logic, poke fun at their cherished ill-conceived ideas or doubt their faithfully held views I feel great. It works 100% of the time, in fact I’m tempted to call it a law, perhaps “Dadey’s jerkass law”.

  9. David Glück says:

    I bounced this off of my ex, a psychologist. Her response? “The fact is, there are thousands [of studies] that seem to say that if a person is more attractive (physically or otherwise) they are more persuasive. And um, duh. And this has always been my argument on why not to be the asshole skeptic. Because people turn off to assholes, even if they are right. “

    She’s digging up some studies for me.

    But what occurs to me is that at least a part of our motivation to be skeptics is that we are at least somewhat angry and frustrated ourselves. Angry because there is so much stupid going around out there that screams out for rebuttal. We didn’t take the job because we are nice. (And we might be nice people. But that’s not why we are skeptics, I think.) We took the job because some people are crazy wrong and we want those people and everyone else to know it. Hell, some of the issues that we deal with, creationism for example, take up time and energy that could be better spent doing something else. (Insert what you would rather be doing here.)

    I’m not advocating snark as a first strike. I can’t think of anything more counter productive than chasing away someone who has challenged us with faulty logic to support a bad idea. But I think it may be a natural reaction to turn to snark after being confronted with so much baloney. I think of our lurkers mostly. It’s rare that we can change the mind of someone committed enough to a bad idea to actually post on our site in an attempt to show us how wrong we are. I think our lurkers would prefer learning about the topic at hand. And we can’t help them to do that if we chase everyone who challenges our skepticism, on whatever it is, away, by calling them stupid for holding a ridiculous belief.

    Anyhow, hopefully my ex will produce some studies that I can use. She also said, “Am I missing something? This seems common sense to me.”

  10. Tim Farley says:

    Thanks for posting this. I’ve been thinking about the same thing lately. It seems odd to me that while skeptics insist on evidence in all scientific arguments, when we start talking about tone and strategy, suddenly evidence is no longer needed.

    I’d love to see Steve Cuno comment on this thread. He’s a marketing person who has presented Sunday papers at TAM 6 and TAM 7 and is scheduled to do so again next week at TAM 8.

  11. Chris Howard says:

    I’m not a psychologist, but I play one in my course work at Texas State… I often get great satisfaction at attending my universities Philosophical Dialogue Series, in which more than a few Psychology Students, and professors, say wonderfully generalized things like “It’s well known, that humans…” to which some Sociology or Anthropology person usually retorts “Well this tribe/sub-culture doesn’t do ‘X'”
    It just makes me all warm and wiggly on the inside.
    My point here is that much of the data in psychology is garnered by studying college freshmen and sophomores, from Western Countries universities. Far from a representative sample of all of humanity.
    I would (argument from ignorance) bet dollars to doughnuts, that not all cultures interpret, and respond to facial, and body language entirely the same across the board.
    I do know that a grimace, with tongue sticking out, eyes wide open, and very close proximity to the intended recipient, by native Hawaiians, back in the day, was a greeting, and friendly gesture. To many Westerners, upon first contact, it was mistaken as a sign of aggression. So much for the universality of facial expression?

    • badrescher says:

      The issue of representativeness in samples is very well-known, well-discussed, and, yes, well-tested. Although we can certainly criticize the sampling and assignment procedures of a single study, it is simply not a valid argument today to discount comprehensive psychological theories because you think we could a better job choosing our samples.

      This is one of the problems with this kind of discussion: the literature is thousands upon thousands of studies deep. Some are crap, some are not. It takes years of study just to familiarize one’s self with a small portion of it. For example:

      I would (argument from ignorance) bet dollars to doughnuts, that not all cultures interpret, and respond to facial, and body language entirely the same across the board.

      Partly yes, partly no, and the literature in both psychology and anthropology is thick on this topic. It’s also very consistent. There are a number of expressions, particularly facial expressions, which are universal. Paul Ekman’s work is almost entirely devoted to those universals. And there are many cultural differences, particularly when it comes to specific gestures. Cultures also differ in the amount of personal space acceptable, etc.

      This is not a simple question with simple answers one can pick up in intro psych. If it was, we wouldn’t have people whose entire job is carving out public images for people, products, companies, and organizations.

    • chet says:

      warm and wiggly…?

  12. Sharon Hill says:

    I’ll echo something Barb said, it takes all kinds but the majority (or default) should be less rhetoric and name calling. I don’t discourage the PZ Myers and Penn Gillettes of the world to say what they need to say and how they say it – they reach an important segment of the audience. We can’t dispute that abrasive entertainers and pundits have many fans, have influence, and make lots of money.

    In reference to my local skeptical community, I’m more sensitive. I do NOT forget being told that I should go *&(%*^ myself if I don’t agree with some viewpoint especially since I agree with the other 90% of that person’s philosophy. I’ve lost a lot of respect for some that have gone that route in the past year or so. It’s detrimental for sure – it alienated a portion of the audience that USED to be supportive. I viewed it as mean and _closed-minded_. THAT’S what turned me off.

    I guess my view is that, if it is your personality to be a bit abrasive, that’s fine. If you go that route one time or another, beyond your typical demeanor, that shows a loss of control. I KNOW I have to practice that and I’ll admit when I’m wrong. I chose the honey.

  13. Warren says:

    Some work I studied in my university years may (probably) have been superseded but it may be a useful place to start. It was Fishbein and Ajzen, Belief, Attitude, Intention and Behavior: An Introduction to Theory and Research,1975. It concerned attitude change which perhaps is one measure of effectiveness in communication. It also differentiated between attitudes and intention to behave and the relationship between these and ultimate behavior.

    For me we would need to allow a very broad measure for the effectiveness of communication because of the range in differences in people, circumstances, and message. I’m still amazed at how frequently different people will view others in vastly different ways. For instance, I have a friend who has a few personality quirks, to some of my other friends these are enough to hate him but clearly not to his wife, or me and his other friends. These quirks are to do specifically with the way he communicates. Another example is a friend who worked in the film industry who has also been on the sharp end of people’s responses to their way of communicating, once she asked an executive if he’d mind elucidating on a few requests he’d made. The fact that she used the word elucidate got her into a whole world of trouble. Some people are baffled by this others not.

    Yes there will be, no doubt, some as yet unknown empirical median of communication tone, but I then suspect the next problem will be that it would only work for some people some of the time. By way of example, little old ladies make great insurance sales people whereas slick business types less so (anecdotal – having worked for 3 insurance companies in my distant past) even with exactly the same pitch. The latter would need to use a very different pitch in order to achieve their maximal effectiveness (as measured by sales).

    My most recent experience is in branding for which there are no good studies, that I’m aware of, about effectiveness, however there are good books by very successful and effective people in the industry (Wolff Olins in particular comes to mind). Again by way of example, a book was released called Love in Black and White. It bombed — did nothing at the bookstores. It was re:released a year or so later as Bridges of Madison County and became and instant international best seller. There are many examples like this including Viagra (named by a naming specialist in branding). In terms of familiar branding such as Starbuck’s or McDonald’s the focus is primarily on total consistency of experience. Consistency of message no real surprises and it’s no surprise that competitors frequently look and feel the same as their competition (the brands seem to huddle around a particular view of their customers). There is research for this but it’s usually completely confidential. Having said all this, applications of exactly the same principals don’t work for every client – the Royal Mail in the UK was rebrand Insignia at one point and the public backlash was immense. Similar things have happened to Coke and British Airways during their experiments with rebranding.

    A. Leon Festinger is another researcher that’s relevant, who’s work into cognitive dissonance is useful. We used to refer to this in Outdoor Education as a way of understanding how people change their beliefs and specific behaviors (in so called character building programmes) in adventure type circumstances. For instance a person may feel scared and incapable of performing well on a rock climb or kayaking in rapids, but as they become involved in the activity, experiencing the fear, the mind experiences a dissonance between the fear combined with a set of beliefs about the individual’s capability and what is being done. People in the field will regularly report on students being transformed by these experiences. The big question when I was studying (25 years ago) however was is this change of attitude and behavior transferrable to other parts of the individual. I imagine in all of these things the deal would be the same, is what is learnt in one area transferrable to another? Does someone who applies critical reasoning in one area do so in others? It’s obviously not always the case — we all seem to have our sacred cows of one kind or another.

    Perhaps as a group we could get an international group of skeptics organisations to commission a cross cultural study (or 2) on the areas of the research into persuasion and attitude change that are weakest and thereby contribute to the science of communication? Sorry that was so long, I hope it was of some use.

    • Mike McRae says:

      Nothing much to comment on other than to say that this is the very discussion that needs to be had. The questions you raise, Warren, are vitally important ones, even if the answers aren’t conclusive or apply only to particular variables.

      My biggest issue with skepticism today is not that we don’t have such answers but that the discussion is often so dismissive of the need to ask them. I’m tired of the flippant disregard for seeking evidence that supports conclusions on what constitutes effective education and communication. Many prominent skeptics can be heard preaching about the need for ‘better education’, yet it is an empty phrase devoid of meaning. What does ‘better’ mean? What makes one form of outreach better than another? To call it all a crap shoot where all forms of communication are equal is not only ignorant, it’s potentially antagonistic to the cause of achieving that goal of ‘better education’.

  14. Warren says:

    Oh I forgot to also supply a couple of possibly useful links:

    Interbrand is one of the world’s big brand design firms whom I worked for for several years. They regularly commission research. Though it’s far from scientific it may still have some merit.


  15. Chris Howard says:

    Cool beans. Does Mr Ekman have a book on the subject, or is his work strictly academic, and if so JSTOR accessible?

  16. Gerald Guild says:

    One of the major keys to effective communication involves knowing the audience. Only half of the process (what you communicate) can be controlled and one could argue it is actually much less than half (given the intuitive non-verbals involved). In other words, penetration of message is largely in the hands of the listener. With issues such as confirmation bias and the plethora of preconceptions that abound – it becomes essential to understand how people think in order to accomplish message penetration. Chabris & Simons in their recent book The Invisible Gorilla (2010) detail much of the current research that I believe is pertinent to your quest. Of interest may be the Illusion of Confidence. People listen to simplistic overblown over confident windbags (hedgehogs) and don’t tolerate complicated, tempered, probabilistic analysis (foxes). Check it out.

  17. cheezfri says:

    I sometimes have good luck “playing dumb”, and rather than force my own opinion on someone, I ask them probing questions regarding their opinion and in so doing, show them why it does not hold water.

  18. James Cole says:

    Interesting idea – and it’s always nice to see a skeptic asking for evidence. I wrote a bit about the image of skepticism and which approach might be more fruitful recently, and noted that people (myself included) have tended to respond to such questions with subjective opinion rather than anything evidence-based.

  19. chunkylimey says:

    I’m not sure the argument that polite people do better is true.

    If we look at the Teabagger movement and Neo-Conservatives in the US for example they have abrasive obnoxious personalities in their ranks who do well to prosper.

    Anne Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck etc…

    In fact judging by the success of these individuals it should be asked whether Skeptics are being abrasive enough?

    I suggest we get some sort of “Dawkins on steroids” to act as a lightening rod but to challenge the conservative mind-set (scientific and political) more directly.

    I’m not volunteering as I’m probably too much of a jerk for the job (I’m only nice to the people I like).

    There is an art to the science of being obnoxious :)

    For statistical quantitive research however might it be an idea to study the ratings of the more abrasive personalities in media versus those known as “polite”?

  20. Bob says:

    While this is an interesting exercise, I wonder if it’s of any practical use. It seems a setup wherein those already holding the honey position get to slag off those with the vinegar position by claiming the science is on their side.

    I’m an engineer by trade and I’m acutely aware of the difference between science and engineering. Science is the search for a perfect model, for understanding; engineering is the search for a solution to a problem, how do I grow more corn, how can I stop flooding, how can I prevent a disease, how can I get to the moon and back. One is not superior to the other; they’re related but definitely different in terms of their practice and outlook.

    If you’re looking for effective means of changing minds and behavior and influencing people, turn on the TV, and look to marketers, both commercial and political. Both Oprah and Jon Stewart command very large audiences so it’s clear that a diversity of approaches sell, at least on TV. Scientific papers may show some interesting or counterintuitive conclusions, but they are all necessarily performed in a contrived, controlled environment, with the possible exceptions of any ‘natural’ experiments. The goal of a scientific paper is to illuminate an aspect of a model, not to achieve a desired result, so if the end goal of this exercise is to show which approach is more effective, it will necessarily fail.

    I’m sure there’s value in a literature search but whether the honey crowd or the vinegar crowd can be deemed to have the science on its side, well, colour me skeptical… :)

    • Mike McRae says:

      While it’s not the first time I’ve seen somebody making such a distinction, it’s certainly one of the more creative attempts. :)

      In spite of some futility in trying to nail down a universal definition, I do have to take some exception with your segregation. Science is a methodology. That’s it. It is a set of values against which people discuss if a method resulted in useful conclusions. Engineering might be the practical application of those conclusions, but it’s not distinct from science more than simply being ‘what we do with what we conclude’. Hence dismissing the discussion out of hand because it isn’t engineering is pretty desperate.

      In any regard, the discussion IS one of practicality and not to simply call out the so-called ‘asshole skeptic’. The practicality is one of outreach and education. One would presume that skeptics are eagre to make the world different, especially those who express such heated passion towards the consequences of what they perceive as stupidity or ridiculous beliefs. Whether it’s explicit or not, it seems to be fair to presume that if a person aggressively campaigns against certain beliefs, they’d prefer them to not be believed in the first place. Therefore this is a discussion of epistemology and how to best educate people in ways of avoiding poorly reasoned conclusions.

      Aggressive tactics of ridicule and mockery have far less of a chance of successfully educating people in changing their epistemology. This is not all that shocking to those who know a bit about psychology and there is evidence to that effect in this thread of responses. The best responses in criticism of this conclusion have been to dismiss science as useful in this particular regard, a tactic befitting of those who wish to maintain beliefs in psychics, homeopathy and other forms of paranormal and pseudoscientific belief.

  21. Elsie Anderson says:

    Hello! I find the topic of your article very interesting. Everybody want to know about the successful ways of communication, but it is a very complicated question, so a simple answer can not be given. Psychology may help by providing information on human behavior, but it is mainly our personal experience that helps us to establish the principles of communication.

    Elsie Anderson, employee of free pdf viewer