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The Reasonableness of Weird Things

by Daniel Loxton, Jul 26 2010

The audience of TAM8The Amazing Meeting (TAM) conference in Las Vegas is always the center of the skeptical universe, and TAM8 was no exception. Bigger and more representative than any previous year (it was co-sponsored by all three national US skeptics groups), TAM8 was an unprecedented summit for North American skepticism.

A lot happened. For a detailed discussion of TAM8, check out my roundtable chat with Tim Farley (What’s the Harm?), Blake Smith (MonsterTalk), and Derek & Swoopy on Skepticality. There’s been a lot to talk about.

Most especially, people have been talking about Phil Plait’s powerful talk, now known to the blogosphere as the “Don’t be a dick” speech (after Wheaton’s Law, an internet maxim that provided the theme of Phil’s presentation). In his talk, Phil argued that skeptics who have outreach goals should get serious about communication:

In times of war, we need warriors. But this isn’t a war. You might try to say it is, but it’s not a war. We aren’t trying to kill an enemy. We’re trying to persuade other humans. And at times like that, we don’t need warriors. What we need are diplomats.

Phil Plait lectures at TAM8.

Phil Plait argues passionately at TAM8. Photo by Marc-Julien Objois

You may not be surprised to hear that I loved this speech. I think it was an important moment in recent skeptical history, and it meant a lot to me personally. “Be nice to people” is a drum I’ve been beating for a long time. I was moved more than I could express to hear someone of Phil’s stature make that case so forcefully from the big stage at skepticism’s big event.

No matter how you look at it, he is of course right: there many excellent reasons to tend toward treating people with respect and courtesy. It’s morally bad to be cruel (and usually unnecessary); it’s contrary to scientific and journalistic ethics (and the search for truth) to shout down legitimate alternate views; it blinds us to flaws in our own reasoning if we fail to seriously consider viewpoints we don’t like. Most importantly (this was the theme of Phil’s talk) science communication is more effective when it starts with warmth and respect.

Those are all excellent topics for further exploration, but my aim today is smaller. I’d like to add one more footnote to the other arguments for civility, which is this:

Many people have quite good reasons for believing in the paranormal.

Lines Through The World

Individual skeptics sometimes form an impression that paranormal beliefs are held by strange people for inexplicable reasons — but not by our kind of people. Speaking personally, I’ll confess that I’m sometimes taken off guard when someone I know turns out to believe some bizarre paranormal thing, even though I know by now to expect it.

But a simple survey of our friends, family and co-workers will often put paid to the notion that paranormal belief is uncommon or unusual. Try it. Gently ask around. If you’re like me, it’s likely that most of the people you know accept some paranormal claim: perhaps alien visitation, or ghosts, or dowsing, or psychic powers, or some form of alternative medicine. The paranormal is everywhere: in labs, in schools, in hospitals, and at your Christmas dinner table.

Faced with the ubiquitousness of such beliefs, a few skeptics are tempted to think there must be something special about those who don’t believe. That conceit hardly seems worthy of dwelling upon, and yet people have actually tried to convince me on this basis that it’s not worth teaching critical thinking. “The smart people already get it,” I’ve been told, “and the stupid people never will. Don’t waste your time.”

I suppose it’s human to want to draw these lines through the world: on this side, the good smart people; on the other side, the bad dumb people. But the world is not nearly so simple.

Raising My Hand

One of the interesting things Phil Plait did during his challenging TAM8 speech was to ask the 1300 skeptics in the room this question:

How many of you here today used to believe in something — used to, past tense — whether it was flying saucers, psychic powers, religion, anything like that? You can raise your hand if you want to.

I was one of the majority of people who raised their hands. If I could have, I would have raised my hand dozens of times for all the dozens of paranormal claims I used to accept.

Does this mean that most of the people at TAM are stupid? Of course not, and I don’t think anyone would make that argument. And yet, I quite often hear skeptics talk about “the woos” as though “they” (in practice, our own friends and neighbors) belong to some alien species.

The Reasonableness of Weird Things

But here’s the thing: most pseudoscientific beliefs are not stupid. They’re just wrong.

Consider two people, Ada and Bee. Both consider themselves critical thinkers. Both walk into a pharmacy looking for headache medication. Ada buys Tylenol, because it has been recommended by people she trusts, because she knows from experience that it works for her, and because she thinks most of alternative medicine is hogwash. By contrast, Bee buys a homeopathic remedy — because it has been recommended by people she trusts, because she knows from experience that it works for her, and because she thinks most of mainstream medicine is hogwash.

In this case, neither the “skeptical” Ada nor the “credulous” Bee has any medical training. Neither has direct knowledge of the primary medical literature about acetaminophen, nor of the primary skeptical literature on homeopathy. I submit that neither Ada nor Bee should be much applauded or scorned for their beliefs. They’re both just regular folks making regular decisions based on the best information they have.

In my experience, the top reasons people believe weird things are not only understandable, but identical to the reasons most skeptics believe things: they are persuaded by personal experiences (or by the experiences of a loved one); or, they are persuaded by the sources they have consulted.

For example, I know several people who believe in ghosts for the perfectly straightforward reason that they personally saw a ghost. They’re willing to consider alternate explanations, but c’mon: of course their personal ghost encounter leans heavily on the scales of evidence. Science may say it’s wise for Ebenezer Scrooge to suppose Marley’s specter “may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard,” but Christmas Carol audiences understand that ghost belief would be pretty reasonable under the circumstances. (And, when ghost witnesses are critical-minded enough to dig into some books or online research, the sources they find authoritatively argue that ghosts are probably real.)

This pattern comes up again and again, from the woman who shyly speaks about her alien abduction experience, to the friends who enthuse about dowsing rods, to the family members who swear by alternative medicine: “My personal experience confirms that this is true.”

Yes, reasoning from visceral experience is a recipe for false belief. Obscure research tells me that my friend is extremely unlikely to have been abducted by aliens. But she was there, and I wasn’t. I don’t know what she saw, not for sure — and I can’t deny that her experience of seeing it could make a pretty compelling basis for personal belief.

Now, I want to be clear here: I’m not suggesting that personal experience is an adequate basis for accepting paranormal claims (it isn’t) or that these claims are true (so far as science can tell, they’re not). I’m saying that, given their information and tools, many paranormalists have understandable reasons for belief.

The Difference Between Believers and Skeptics?

However we label ourselves or others, we come up against the fact that people are complicated. Generalizations are doomed to inadequacy. But, I will suggest that the differences between skeptics and paranormal believers have less to do with innate credulity, and more to do with training and resources.

When I was a scruffy young boy, I found a Bigfoot footprint in the wilderness of British Columbia. Devouring every sasquatch book I could find (there were several in my elementary school library), I learned the persuasive facts that many, many people had found footprints or reported encounters with Bigfoot, and that sasquatch photographs had even been taken. Therefore, I believed in Bigfoot.

What I did not have was any understanding of how those many witnesses could all be wrong (myself included), or how on Earth hoaxing could account for most prints. I didn’t have any access to the skeptical books or magazines (still rare today, but then vanishingly so) that could have explained it to me. And, most importantly, I did not know what I did not know. I had to be taught to ask counter-intuitive questions, and I had to be taught how to find the best answers.

I wasn’t born knowing that stuff. Nobody is. As Phil Plait’s speech put it, “Skepticism is hard.” It’s hard, and it has to be taught. And that is how it can be that several hundred thoughtful skeptics at the The Amazing Meeting 8 used to believe in magic.

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128 Responses to “The Reasonableness of Weird Things”

  1. Kevin says:

    Once again, Daniel, you hit the nail right on the head! Well done!

  2. I don’t think that there has to be one or the other. It is perfectly possible to be a diplomat when there is a possibility of winning over a counterpart, and a warrior when that is not the case. What is required is an even temperament, and the experience to know the difference.

    • JGB says:

      I agree that it is possible to be flexible in one’s approach: diplomat when needed and warrior when needed. However, in practice I think very, very few people have the necessary skills and talent to do this.

      I will give an example of inflexibility of communications style from my personal & professional experience: science education/public outreach. My research group (at a major University that y’all have heard of) is very active in doing outreach. We send scientists out to give talks; we provide free (or low-cost) teacher training workshops; we even send some intrepid souls to prisons & Juvenile Hall locations to reach out to the public. Most scientists are atrocious at doing this (even the ones who can be bothered to do this). Their communication skills are very narrow and they seem only able to discuss science with colleagues. As a result some of our outreach efforts have been off-putting and counter-productive. Instead of inviting young students and the public into the scientific fold we’ve alienated many. All scientists who give public lectures *care* about it or they wouldn’t do it (OK. Some have been ordered to do it) but being able to do it is tough. [On top of that speaking to an Amateur Astronomy club, a Boy Scout Troop and a Middle-School class all require *very* different approaches.] Many of the millenial generation do not respond favorably to the techniques used on Gen-Xers and Baby-Boomers.

      Some skeptics are good at diplomacy and reaching out in that vein, others (like Penn & Teller in _Bullsh*t_) are better at the confrontational & ridiculing methods to get out the message. I agree that we need both because not everyone responds to the same presentation. The tricky part is to find the right approach for the moment (and audience).

    • Lifewish says:

      Agreed. To elaborate, I’d say that there are three possibilities in a debate:

      1) The other person is honestly mistaken, and may be open to correction.

      2) The other person is mistaken, but for some reason (e.g. political) is not interested in changing their stance.

      3) You’re the one who is mistaken.

      In a type #1 debate, being nice will generally be the best strategy – you might win over the person you’re discussing with. I’m personally aware of a couple of situations where this has worked, although I’d like to see some controlled testing in this area.

      Being combative will, in my experience, just lead to the other side hardening their position, at which point you’re stuck in a type #2 debate.

      In a type #2 debate, the important thing is not to try to convince the other debater. It’s too late. You’ve lost them. Rather, your target is the audience. This means the situation is far more dependent on the forum in which you’re debating, whether it be a group of friends or a blog or the mainstream media.

      I’ll repeat that for emphasis: in an adversarial debate, you are trying to convince the AUDIENCE, not the DEBATER.

      Some audiences will see dickishness as a turn-off. In which case, sending up the other person will backfire horribly. Some audiences will be perfectly happy to see someone eviscerated in print for the blatant stupidity of their beliefs. In which case, dick-like behaviour may be a powerful weapon to win hearts and minds.

      As Rhacodactylus says, the important thing is to recognise which situation you’re in.

      Of course, as skeptics, we should always consider the possibility that we’re in a type #3 debate…

  3. Kenneth Polit says:

    I’m an atheist, but I find that some other atheists get offended by theists saying, “I’ll pray for you.” I don’t because I used to be a believer, and I understand what it really means: I care about you and I want you to be happy. If it’s thought of in that way it isn’t so onerous.

    • AJ says:

      It depends on the context, I recently heard a comedian say it’s the fundamentalist Christians equivalent of saying f*** you. I’d have to agree with that assessment. I find it offensive, and call people all on it every time they say it to me. Take it from the opposite approach would they be offended if I said, “I hope for your continual education and logic in spite of your archaic views?” I think it would.

      • Pedro says:

        Of course it depends on the context. But your agreement with the “assessment” of a comedian flattens any notion of context. If you tell a Christian that you’re gravely ill and he or she offers to pray for you, are they really giving you the gears? It would seem that you’ve reduced “I’ll pray for you” usage to arguments wherein Christians and atheists are contesting the legitimacy of the other’s belief. I’m with Kenneth on this one. It can be used imperiously by Christians, but that’s generally after they’ve been served and have to appeal to higher powers to salvage dignity.

      • Lifewish says:

        There’s a difference between Christians saying “I’ll pray for you” when you’re sick and when you’re debating them. In the first case, they’re implicitly saying “get well soon”. In the second case, they’re implicitly saying “I can’t convince you by reason, so I hope my God brainwashes you into sharing my beliefs”.

        I personally don’t find it offensive when it’s used honestly (i.e. by an amateur evangelist who doesn’t really realise what they’re saying, as opposed to a fundamentalist talk-show host who clearly does). But I always find it irritating. It’s almost as bad as the standard cop-out “well, just pray about it”.

        They don’t seem to grasp that, if I actually heard God speak to me in response to my prayers, my first port of call would be a shrink not a church. Voices in people’s heads are not robust evidence, even when the head is mine.

      • Kenneth Polit says:

        That reminds me of a joke Lily Tomlin once said,”Why is it when we talk to God we’re praying but when God talks to us we’re schizophrenic?”

      • MadScientist says:

        I think it depends on the individual; I find it offensive because it’s so damned stupid, even if the person saying it means well. I usually tease them about their version of god until they learn not to mention any deities and substitute something which is encouraging but not laden with superstition like “I hope you get better soon”. When it comes to friends and family with terminal illnesses I’m very straightforward though, which many find distressing, but I still don’t see why people should fool themselves that a deity may intervene – if they know the odds of them lasting much longer are pretty slim they’d better make the best of what time they’ve got.

      • Jackweline says:

        Yeah, other people being wrong is pretty damn offensive. Hell, every time I read anything you write it seems so mind blowingly offensive I’m not sure how you can operate something as complex as a keyboard.

        If you want dying people to make the best of the time they have left how about not trying to upset them by attacking their long held beliefs and their only comfort. Moron.
        Cause, y’know, finding out that you’ve been wrong your entire life and that eternal life does not wait for you round the corner, is not something that is going to make a dying person happy.

    • ArchiesBoy says:

      “I’m an atheist.” I have trouble with that statement. I can’t see how it’s possible to prove that God doesn’t exist for the same reason I can’t see how it’s possible to prove that She does. So I say “I’m an agnostic,” which I define as the position that the idea can be neither proved nor disproved. I will add this however: I absolutely do not believe in the God concepts arising from the world’s holy books, for the same reasons I do not believe in Santa Clause or the Tooth Fairy: they are simply figments of our imagination. But whether or not Reality was created by a Sentience (or Sentiences) acting with Purpose — I think that’s impossible for humans to ever know, for the same reason that a dog will never learn to read the sports page.

      • JGB says:

        Do atheists claim that God’s existence has been conclusively ruled out? I haven’t ever met one who seriously made that claim. I have heard many atheists say that the preponderance of evidence suggests that God does not exist. (and that they don’t need/want to re-consider evidence that they’ve already considered enroute to arriving at that conclusion).

        I always thought that a key distinction between an agnostic and an atheist is in their view of the inherent ‘knowability’ of God’s existence.

      • MadScientist says:

        Although I would not say “conclusively ruled out”, I’d say “extremely silly to believe in any deity whatsoever.” I do that because there has never been any evidence of the existence of any deities ever described. Many have rejected the deities in the self-professed holy books and yet still cling to an irrational sentiment that there may be some deity or deities in a form which no one has yet described. Although this is technically correct on a philosophical level if you do not consider any other evidence (or lack thereof), this technically correct position is actually quite absurd. Still, many great thinkers such as Bertrand Russell stick/stuck to the “I will simply suspend my judgement” line and although I do not agree with them, I wouldn’t bother arguing with them either.

      • Retired Prof says:

        My son (who majored in philosophy) objected when I called myself an agnostic.

        He said, “Dad, there are two kinds of agnostics. One claims not to know but acts as if there is a god. The other claims not to know but acts as if there isn’t. You’re the second kind, so no matter what you believe, you’re a practicing atheist.”

        So the line I adopted to answer the query when it comes is “Philosophically I’m an agnostic, but in practice an atheist.” Can’t wait for a chance to use it.

      • MadScientist says:

        Oh, do ask your son what he means by acting as if there is no god. For folks like me who say there is no god, it is peculiar that people make a distinction between acting as if there were one (or many) and acting as though there are none (the correct case). I can only imagine a few classes of actions which I would associate with the presupposition of deities and that would include the gamut of superstitious rituals. As Jon Stewart might put it: It’s sounding a lot like this is just another meaningless phrase.

      • NightHiker says:


        There’s nothing wrong with the phrase – it’s just a long way of saying “I’m an agnostic atheist” (which is likely the position the majority of atheists holds anyway).

        George H Smith dealt with this issue in what I think was a very convincing manner in his Book “Atheism – The Case Against God”. It was written in the 70s and I consider it mandatory reading to any skeptical person.

        In short, he contends that the term “agnostic” is not, as many see it, a third alternative to theism or atheism. Agnosticism and theism/atheism deal with different issues. Atheism has to do with what you believe in (metaphysics), while agnosticism has to do with why you believe it (epistemology). They are two different, perpendicular axes. One defines if you have a belief in god or not, while the other defines if you believe such view can be ascertained or not.

        Substitute atheism/theism for “x” and agnosticism/gnosticism for “y” coordinates in a sort of Cartesian chart and you will understand it. Your “x” or “y” coordinates alone are not enough to define your position in “belief space”, so to speak. Whether people are agnostic or not, they still have to be either theists or atheists. That leaves us with four possible options, like the four quadrants in a Cartesian chart:

        Gnostic theists (+x,+y) believe in god because they think there is enough evidence to support it.

        Agnostic theists (+x, -y) believe in god but think they cannot know anything about its nature.

        Gnostic (or strong) atheists (-x,+y) think there is enough evidence to refute the belief in God.

        And Agnostic atheists (-x,-y) have no belief in god, even though they think it’s impossible to know for sure.

        Note that while such analogy is a good tool to understand this issue, it’s not perfect, unless you think of the x=0 and y=0 coordinates as limits that can be approached but never reached – x and y always need to be positive or negative).

        That’s why pure agnosticism is a valid epistemological position, but impossible to achieve in practice – and therefore why someone can be “philosophically agnostic but atheist in practice”.

  4. badrescher says:

    Well said. Since the filter won’t let me leave it at that, I’ll say it again: Well said.

  5. Max says:

    I was shocked to learn that someone I know who’s involved in bomb detection believes in dowsing. I seriously hope he doesn’t combine the two.
    I understand, we all make mistakes, but I start to lose patience when a person is deaf to reason and evidence.

  6. MadScientist says:

    To steal a phrase from Roger and Hammerstein: “but it doesn’t mean anything!”

    If I were to give a speech about why catholic priests should not be cannibals it would be just as relevant. After all, isn’t it obvious that being a cannibal would scare away potential converts?

    Is saying “that’s silly” being a dick? How about “that’s stupid”? That’s just superstition? There are no gods? No doubt someone may be offended if you say that something they believe in is silly – but that neither makes you wrong nor makes you a dick.

    I wonder what the point of the talk was. Is there a cadre of self-proclaimed skeptics out there who run around being dicks? I am certainly not aware of any – the closest I can think of would be Penn Jillette – but in that case I think he’s a great guy even though he may be offensive at times, and on his show Bullshit! he’s often offensive when speaking about reprehensible people.

    I would not wish for people to develop a mistaken notion that they must censor themselves and their actions and always be nice to others regardless of what they peddle and what they believe in. For example, for a number of years now (and this not something new to our era) a few religious groups have been demanding laws to coerce people into “respecting” religious beliefs – whatever the hell that means. What crap! Religious beliefs deserve no respect; they are nothing more than incorrect ideas and in themselves are incapable of emotions – respecting them is pretty damned stupid. So, religious ideas should be ridiculed for amusement. People on the other hand should be treated with respect except in those cases in which they do not deserve any respect (for example, the pope in his role of protector of rapists). The religious often claim that science is nothing but a belief – that is utter nonsense. The so-called natural laws do not make silly demands that anyone accept them. These laws are simply a model for the behavior of things in nature and the laws have been tested many times. You don’t have to have any respect whatsoever for Newton’s Law of Gravitation – but go ahead and jump off a precipice and wish it away – nature will not be so accommodating. Religion on the other hand is not only untested, but demonstrably wrong. So why do the natural laws demand no respect (and yet they are obeyed) yet the supernatural laws demand respect? Hmm? Am I being a dick yet? I would say I’m not because everyone here tells me I’m a crazy c….

    • It’s not my intention to draw lines through the skeptical world, either. Skeptics are complicated; the people we talk to are varied; outcomes of communications strategies are different from situation to situation. I’m not proposing a litmus test for dickishness; I don’t think Phil Plait was either.

      But I do know that I’ve been unkind many times in my life of doubt, scoring points (and closing doors) for my own ego or stature or whatever (especially in my earlier years). I suspect Phil was also speaking about himself as much as anyone else. Even if he and I were the only dicks in skepticism, “be nice to people” would still be good advice.

      I advocate a strong default approach: start with kindness and respect, and you’ll be well-served in most situations most of the time.

      But no one is taking outrage off the table. As the stories go, even Jesus kicked over tables. Or, as Plait put it in his speech, “Anger is a very potent weapon, and we need that weapon — but we need to be excruciatingly careful how we use it.”

      • B N says:

        However, one should note that kicking over tables may bring you to “the place where you do not want to go.” See: Jesus, Socrates, Galileo. Anger at the system may be productive for the system, but it doesn’t seem to benefit the individual.

      • JGB says:

        Anger *can* benefit the individual – it all depends on how it is expressed.
        I think that being a dick *can* be beneficial at times – but it is likely to alienate others so it should have a specific well-defined purpose behind it.

        Penn & Teller certainly act like dicks on their show, _Bullshit!_, and it is done for effect (and is consistent with their stage personas which have a bad-boy element to them). They also go over-the-top many times and use strong profanity. This means that you probably wouldn’t show a class an episode of _Bullshit!_ whereas you would show an episode of _Myth Busters_. OTOH: Penn & Teller do send a valuable message: You don’t have to be a geek to think critically. That alone vindicates their approach.

      • MadScientist says:

        I still don’t see that the point was something that needed to be mentioned at all. As a pep talk it would be fine – I can’t imagine many people at all disagreeing with Phil – but aside from giving the audience a warm fuzzy feeling, did the speech serve any useful purpose?

      • sowellfan says:

        Yes, the talk served a purpose – because there *are* people out there in the skeptical community who really do tend towards the dickish side in their ‘public outreach’. I don’t see how the speech was a pep talk – it was about modifying our behavior in such a way as to have the best results. For people who already agreed with Plait, perhaps it didn’t make a difference – but quite a few of the people in *my* skeptical circle thought that it was needed commentary.

      • David says:

        “Yes, the talk served a purpose – because there *are* people out there in the skeptical community who really do tend towards the dickish side in their ‘public outreach’. I don’t see how the speech was a pep talk – it was about modifying our behavior in such a way as to have the best results. For people who already agreed with Plait, perhaps it didn’t make a difference – but quite a few of the people in *my* skeptical circle thought that it was needed commentary.”

        Ive been waiting and waiting for the location of where I can find these dickish skeptics who are the problem. perhaps someone anyone could post a link instead of just repeating over and over “oh they’re out there” or “trust me I’ve seen it”.

  7. dezrah says:

    Mr. Loxton, you’ve done it again. Well said, reasonable, compassionate, and most importantly, true.

    Is there any way we can make you president of skepticism? :)

  8. TonyaK says:

    “But, I will suggest that the differences between skeptics and paranormal believers have less to do with innate credulity, and more to do with training and resources.”

    Nicely done. If we spent more time and effort providing educational resources and training and less time yelling at the top of our lungs about how stupid someone’s beliefs are, we might actually accomplish something.

    Daniel is my new SkeptiHero.

    • JGB says:

      What type of educational resources would help more students learn critical thinking skills?

  9. CW says:

    When we talk about being a dick – are we focusing just on “ridicule?”

    A possible point of ambiguity in the “don’t be a dick” speech is that there are a wide variety of ways, of being perceived like a dick than just ridicule. One can perceive a skeptic being arrogant, patronizing, coy, mocking, rude, overbearing, etc. for a whole variety of reasons such as word choice, tone, body language, etc.

    For example, I think one can interpret “You missed my point” as a dickish assertion to make in a discussion, rather than “I didn’t make my point clear.”

    Whereas being non-dickish relies on having a narrower range of attitude conveyance (right tone, body language, word-choice, etc.) as well as simply focusing on trying not to come across as insincere. And aside from all of this, sometimes there are people who just find others to be a dick simply by having a contrary point of view.

  10. MikeB says:

    I don’t think Daniel nor Phsaying respect we should show any respect for beliefs but that we should show respect to the people holding them because most of us at one time believed something that turned out to be wrong.

  11. Cambias says:

    I think another important technique is “decoupling.” Many people hold paranormal beliefs because they dovetail nicely with other beliefs they hold — e.g., someone who hates “big pharma” will be receptive to “alternative medicine” quackery. Attacking the person’s whole political ideology at once just makes them dig in; picking at specific, factually wrong beliefs can bear fruit. This is why I think skeptics are unwise to tie themselves closely to atheism — you may be able to persuade a Christian to give up Creationism but not if you insist on their giving up God as well.

    • Kenneth Polit says:

      I agree, when I speak to a creationist I always use the argument that they say the ways of God are unknowable and yet you know He didn’t use evolution. What’s a few billion years to a being that is eternal? I don’t ridicule his belief in God, I just give him a chance to see a bigger picture than biblical literalism.

      • B N says:

        Precisely. If your faith conflicts with your facts, you’ve got to find a way to reinterpret one of them. In this case, the shortest paths to resolution are either: “God may have used evolution to make life” or “God made the world so it LOOKED like evolution occurred (and occurs)… for some reason.” It’s shocking to see how many people take the second option, but to each their own. Especially when you mention the time element. What if the universe has a closed-form solution from the outside? You could just pick a time and know the state. Not even a wait, at that point.

        On the converse side though, some people are quite happy having irreconcilable or contradictory beliefs. Not sure how to deal with that. I know people that even dealing with purely material matters are glad to admit that two of their opinions are totally contradictory. If people are happy having contradictions, what then?

    • itzac says:

      Rather than worry about how closely skepticism is tied to atheism, I suggest just having one conversation at a time. It’s perfectly possible to have a religious belief that in no way conflicts with science. It’s not going to be a very interesting religion, but it would be irrefutable, if also unsupportable. Liberal Catholics come to mind as an example. You don’t have to talk a person all the way to atheism to have this discussion.

      Creationism is tough because you either need to talk the person out of biblical literalism or you need to convince them of the importance of secularism and the unsupportability of their beliefs.

    • B N says:

      Why ARE so many skeptics atheists anyways? Haven’t people ever heard of agnosticism? I would think that being a devout skeptic would necessitate backing up strong agnosticism, but what do I know, right?

      • sowellfan says:

        It’s a conversation that’s been had many many times, and it all depends on how an individual defines “atheist” and “agnostic”. Really, you’d do well to go read some portions of the wikipedia articles on “atheism” and “agnosticism”. A majority of the people I know in the skeptical movement will generally define themselves as both atheist and agnostic. When they say ‘atheist’, they mean that they don’t believe in a god. When they say ‘agnostic’, they mean that they can’t *know* whether or not a god might exist – in fact, they generally probably say that it’s unknowable.

      • John Marley says:

        I can’t really speak for anyone other than myself and the people I hang with, so here’s how it is for me:

        I define my atheism as “I don’t believe God exists because the lack of positive evidence makes the possibility vanishingly unlikely.

        Professed agnostics seem to give close to 50/50 for non-existence / existence, and are therefore on the fence.

  12. Somite says:

    My immediate feeling from Phil’s talk was mild irritation. I did not understand why at the moment but I’ve come to understand how wrong is to worry about the emotional consequences of the truth. This is mainly because this is the main tool of woo. Deceit by tugging at your heartstrings.

    The most important lesson of skepticism is that the truth is independent of what we believe or feel about it. Efforts to frame the truth or blunt it are simply counterproductive and a waste of everyone’s time.

    Which explains why Phil’s pratical example was so bothersome to me. He discussed how he did not insult a young creationist woman and had a long response that “allowed” for her beliefs first and the truth second. It really was paternalistic and condescending; not at all sensitive. I would not offend anyone by assuming they are so fragile that they couldn’t handle the truth.

    • WScott says:

      You are correct that “what we believe or feel” about the truth doesn’t change the truth. But it very much *does* change how likely people are to believe the truth. Are you actually interested in persuading other people? Or is it more important to you to just be RIGHT? If the latter, then by all means carry on.

      • Somite says:

        That’s the point. One of the major lessons of skepticism is that the truth is independent of belief; and only the truth should really matter.

      • Truth is independent of belief — but knowing the truth helps no one unless we are able to communicate it. This is a lesson as old as the myth of Cassandra, but it’s one I have to relearn quite often.

      • Cassandra is not a myth. I keep telling people that but nobody will believe me.

      • Phil Plait says:

        Bang! Done. That is precisely what I meant. Cassandra is a good analogy, but imagine she also got red in the face and screamed at everyone.

        Some people are questioning the existence of these “dickish” skeptics. They exist, as attested by the *hundreds* of people coming up to me after my speech and thanking me since they had seen others act that way, or had done so themselves. There were also several very emotional people who were distraught over their treatment by fellow skeptics; they believed in something themselves and were derided for it.

        My point was to be inclusive, not exclusive. We are emotional beings, like it or not, and we don’t always react with our intellect. Skepticism is a tough path, so why make it even tougher?

    • Phil Plait says:

      Your last paragraph is interesting to me. Saying I was not sensitive is particularly peculiar. I was highly sensitive to her situation, which is why I didn’t try to confront her, nor to pander. I told her how science leads to one conclusion that is different than faith, and I did so without insulting her. Paternalistic? Maybe, since she was about 16 which is roughly the same age as my daughter. But condescending? Hardly.

      And I never allowed for her beliefs first and truth second. What a strange thing to conclude! I was very clear how reality and evidence points toward an old Earth, and the sources she was using (AiG and ICR) were habitually wrong when dealing with science. Her faith may tell her one thing, but science another. To someone as indoctrinated as she was to creationism, she was heavily fortified against listening to science. I’m hoping I put a little crack in the dam.

      • NightHiker says:

        I would volunteer this is not only an issue about skeptics being right or wrong when they confront unreasonable beliefs – but whether directly confronting the beliefs is a productive strategy. Synapse strength is modulated by emotion, and most people who pander to such beliefs have very strong neural pathways in place that won’t simply turn off when confronted by reason. If you want to weaken such pathways, the least thing you should do is keep mentioning such beliefs, for roughly the same reason you can’t avoid thinking about your mother right now. Whenever you mention their beliefs uninvited, you are risking strengthening them. A much more productive way to make someone become more critical of their beliefs is to strengthen other pathways around that one: in this case, teaching about critical thinking skills without ever mentioning their own beliefs. Teach the tools, and let them apply them to whatever content they have already assimilated. Then, if afterwards someone comes to you and voluntarily asks something specific about their beliefs, it’s because they have found the conflict themselves, and are one step closer to actually listen to what you have to say.

        Someone could say this is not a “sincere” approach, but the reality is that we are few in number and have limited resources, so we should use these resources in the most productive way possible. One of those resources, and likely among the most valuable, is the knowledge of how our minds work – we should not ignore it when picking our fights.

      • David says:

        Phil seriously, at what point do anecdotes become evidence?

        “Some people are questioning the existence of these “dickish” skeptics. They exist, as attested by the *hundreds* of people coming up to me after my speech and thanking me since they had seen others act that way, or had done so themselves. There were also several very emotional people who were distraught over their treatment by fellow skeptics; they believed in something themselves and were derided for it.”

        Your speech implied that there is a rising tide of dickish behavior in the blogosphere and the skeptic community. If that is the case don’t give me another anecdote show me an example.

        I’m not trying to be a denialist about this. I honestly want an answer and its getting very frustrating. If your claim is true it should very well be self evident just by going to some prominent skeptic/atheist blogs but its just not.

        It infuriates me when I’m told asking for evidence on this is wrong or somehow disingenuous.

  13. WScott says:

    Well said, Daniel. There’s a place for the Penn Gillettes and other professional dicks of the world, especially on the public stage. And I would never underestimate the value of humor and even outright ridicule in pointing our the Emperor’s lack of clothes. But in the majority of human interactions, people are rarely if ever talked out of their beliefs because someone told them “You’re an idiot” – true or not, all that does is make people more defensive and push them further down the slope of self-justification.

  14. Rachael says:

    Very good post. I think that when our frustration levels start climbing, when we’ve explained thing X about some kind of woo for the fifty bajillionth time, we tend to forget that for the most part, other people aren’t actively, maliciously stupid. They’ve got a reason for believing what they do and treating them like they’re stupid is not the way to put together a convincing argument. It’s easy to get frustrated, then shouty, and then you just kind of shoot yourself in the foot.

    Then again, there is some active, malicious stupidity out there. (*coughcoughJennyMcCarthycoughcough*) And at that point, the person in question has become so mentally and emotionally invested in their thing that I suppose all you can really do is damage control. :-/ Another frustrating exercise.

    • MadScientist says:

      When you say active malicious stupidity, do you mean deliberately malicious? Ignorance is dangerous and ignorant people do not need to have evil intentions in order to cause disasters.

  15. Why is it that every time this topic of civility comes up there is an inevitable wash of people saying:
    * “Who’s being uncivil? I’m not aware of an f**king incivility on the Internet?”

    * “We need to retain the right of incivility! You can have my bird when you pry it off my cold dead hands!”

    * “I’m tired of people talking about being nice! Being nice isn’t funny! Be more funny! Funny makes people be more smarters!”

    I’m just curious. Couldn’t we just take advice like this and add it to our arsenal of possible responses when engaging others? Does it have to be that arguments for civility are mandates against incivility?

    Has anybody cross-posted this at 4chan yet?

    • Rachael says:

      You’ve also forgotten: “If I can’t be a dick that must mean I’m a kissy face accommodationist that isn’t allowed to make eye contact! OMG how can you say such a thing?!”

      Because, you know, it’s completely impossible to make a strong, cogent argument in favor of your position without calling someone a seal clubbing baby raper. True fax.

      • Phil Plait says:

        The number of people who have said I was advocating weakness is astonishing. In my talk I said specifically that we need to use our passion and anger, but that we must be careful.

        Critical thinking also includes thinking critically about our own thinking.

      • Rachael says:

        I’ve been seeing that a lot in various posts and I’ve attempted to bring up that point. I seem to get ignored a lot, but meh, what can you do.

        Though I’ve also been fairly stunned at the number of posts I’ve seen that have basically started out with “Well, I wasn’t actually at TAM and haven’t seen Phil’s talk, but…” and then end with the “being not a dick = being an accomodationist” thing.

        I don’t know if that’s a sign that you still had a clarity of message issue (not even solved by having everything written down and thought out in advance) or if it’s a people hearing what they want to hear issue. Maybe a bit of both.

      • tmac57 says:

        “…’n’ it’s all right now, learned my lesson well
        You see, ya can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself”
        Rick Nelson

      • Stephen Foster says:

        A way I like to tell my kids about emotional language: “sometimes an epithet or yelling will carry your point very well, but if you shout too often, no one listens to your normal voice.”

    • AmSci says:

      Personally, it bugs the hell out of me that people lump in comedy with incivility. True, comedy isn’t always civil. But that’s not a requirement for humor.

      People have mentioned Penn & Teller earlier in this thread as members of the “dick” community. I disagree. They understand one of the basic principles of good comedy: power.

      They’ll call people assholes on their show, but the targets are carefully selected. The vast majority of the time, these are people who are, intentionally or not, hurting others with their bullshit beliefs. They’re the peddlers, the preachers, the profiteers. Penn & Teller go out of their way to treat the victims of bullshit much more kindly. They never come across as mean. Just angry. And sometimes even a little maudlin in their empathy.

      Effective comedy, just like effective polemic, is never cruel. And it has everything to do with power.

      There’s a rule in the standup world that a comedian should never dress too “cool” on stage. (I’m no hepcat, but I assume this means no parachute pants or shutter shades. Crocs? I don’t know what those are.) This is because you always want to be seen as a peer by your audience. Coolness puts you in a position of power, which strips you of the right to complain about the world. It invalidates your opinion and kills your jokes. This is why (with a few notable exceptions such as Marty Feldman) comedians are rarely stunningly attractive. It sets you apart. It shifts the power balance.

      When skeptics attack people for simply having beliefs, they’ve become the powerful attacking the powerless. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, they’ve put on a suit of armor to attack an ice cream sundae. Target is key. Like Penn & Teller, you need to make sure your target is in a position of power, or you just come across as a bully.

      Ridicule and comedy aren’t the same thing. Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh call themselves satirists. That doesn’t mean they are. And even if they were, that doesn’t mean they’re good at it.

      Satire works when it comes to changing people’s minds, but it’s a skill. In standup terms, it’s the difference between Andrew “Dice” Clay and Bill Hicks. Both are angry. Both are acerbic. Both could be loud. Only one is a dick.

      It’s not about whether you’re right or wrong. It’s about who you’re attacking and why.

      • Marella says:

        “When skeptics attack people for simply having beliefs, they’ve become the powerful attacking the powerless.”

        You don’t explain why this is. Skeptics aren’t cool, or wealthy, we have very little political power. If skepticism automatically makes you powerful, then it can only be because it creates strength by making you right where others are mistaken. Job done really then isn’t it?

        By pandering to people’s delusions you are just lying to them some more. They’ve been lied to enough. Tell them the truth for a change, it’s not necessary to scream in their face, you can be nice about it, but more lies can’t possibly help anyone. Perhaps you could try explaining the concept of ‘evidence’ and ‘reality’ to them, ‘logic’ ‘proof’ things like that.

      • Rachael says:

        I’d guess that skeptics can qualify as the powerful attacking the powerless in certain circumstances because we can so easily present ourselves as someone who is smarter/more logical/better educated than a believer. And if that’s the angle of approach, then it puts the other person in a very defensive position, because no one likes to be made to look like an idiot.

      • AmSci says:

        Call me crazy, but I feel like there’s a difference between choosing not to attack something and “pandering” to it.

        When you aren’t being attacked, then going on the offensive puts you in a power position. People who profit through peddling nonsense, push their nonsense on others, or otherwise do harm by acting on their beliefs are fair game. They’re on the assault.

        But simply holding or expressing beliefs is harmless. Unless you treat someone being incorrect as a personal affront. In which case, you may be the one with the problem.

  16. Skeptiateach says:

    As a teacher we’re taught to engage students from where they are in order to link new concepts to what they already know. That’s the most effective approach to enduring understanding. The seeds of critical thinking rely on allowing people the choice to think and debate for themselves the validity of their ideas and to start to consider new ideas. I think we want skeptics to join the fold willingly, openly and confident that it is their choice. Scaring or bullying an idea or approach into someone will be dismissed at the earliest opportunity by the learner.

    What Daniel and Phil proport is solid, proven pedagogical thinking. This isn’t the approach I want to take either – I have wanted to yell at a room of students “What don’t you understand!? How lazy or stupid are you?!” but they would just dismiss me as crazier than usual and everything I was attempting to teach them. If we want to build a real movement, the slow, enduring, often tedious and difficult process relies on not being a dick.

    • B N says:

      Darn. All my teaching habits were learned from Kindergarten Cop. First I shout at everyone saying “SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!” Then I ask them what’s wrong with them, and tell them to stop it. I guess this means I should try scaffolding and building rapport instead? :)

  17. oldebabe says:

    A type of social `correctness’ being preached to skeptics who might (or did) voice their opinions (assumptions made here that these will be boorish and/or aggressive)?

    Pejorative nomenculature being attached to, or already attached to, those who may dare to speak without first checking their every word for `niceness’ before making responses re: others’ statements in order to, potentially, convince)?

    Alarm bells going off!

    • Are they alarm bells or church bells?

      But seriously – is social correctness being “preached?” Or are some prominent voices suggesting being nice is better than being mean?

      This has nothing to do with political correctness, as far as I can tell. It’s just an entreatment to use empathy over acrimony in engagement.

  18. highnumber says:

    I call this variety of dickishness “Sobchak Syndrome.”
    As in, “You’re not wrong, Walter. You’re just an a**hole.”

  19. As the Good Book sayeth :
    ______For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities [institutions], against powers [government/religion integration], against the rulers of the darkness of this world [religious leaders and peddlers of woo], against spiritual wickedness in high places [the ideas themselves].______ Eph 6:12

    heh, there certainly are little gems of wisdom to be found in weird places. ;-)

    Two points:
    Yes, this is not a literal war, but it is a war of ideas, and we have to be attentive to which strategy works in different situations. For one, many religious people (less so paranormalists, but sometimes) consider disagreement itself to be, at least, rude, and often “an attack”. In that situation, the only way to be polite is, well, dishonesty. If you spend your time bending over backwards to be polite, talking about the beauty of religious symbolism or good moral lessons, you end up disarming your own arguments, and just supporting their beliefs (see ironic quote above). Let’s be polite, but keep in mind that being polite only means not insulting someone — it doesn’t mean not calling them wrong.

    Second, is that we who like to call ourselves evidence-based thinkers sometimes forget that to most people, the simple fact that their family/friends/culture hold a belief is *itself* evidence. It is, in fact, how they come to most of their beliefs, even true ones. This is a misconception at the root, and one must address it with each discussion.

    • B N says:

      There are a couple of issues to mention related to this:
      1. Critical thinking is expensive – From a social-information point of view, it is VERY adaptive to hold beliefs “just because” others hold beliefs. This gives you more time to do other things than constantly restructuring your values. So while we’re here posting about thoughts and values on a blog comments section, one of those “non-evidence-based-thinkers” could be out volunteering at a homeless shelter due to their unevaluated beliefs. Or making money, or whatever. While “the unexamined life is not worth living” for Socrates, even he relied on farmers. From a societal standpoint, don’t you have to question how much time should really be spent on critical thinking? It’s the standard explore/exploit balance.

      2. It’s only a war of ideas if you make it one – We’re talking about unstoppable forces vs immovable objects. Or in this case, evidence based thinking vs inherently unverifiable beliefs. Many people with paranormal beliefs don’t cause have this conflict because they believe in something they feel is testable and provable. So you’re ultimately stuck in the situation where you can both agree that “Well, we’ll see on the evidence who is right in the end.” Hitting faith with skepticism head-on is a trainwreck. Depending on how you define faith and God, you are not just talking about things that are unverified.

      Faith/God matters are tautologically unverifiable. It is quite possible, likely even, that the existence of a God (or many Gods) is unprovable for the pro or the con side. There isn’t even evidence to support a rationale for either argument. On one side, you have old books and religious visions. On the other side you have the argument that God and/or a creator of the universe is unlikely? Unlikely based on what? Have you watched any universes being created, because I haven’t. I certainly haven’t watched enough to figure out patterns. In the little old world of earth, I know that valleys tend to be caused by natural erosion but that computer programs are constructed by creators. But a universe? How could anyone be so bold as to say they know the answer based on evidence?

      3. Why bother with spirituality? – So my question is, why should a skeptic even take on those arguments? There’s no evidence to support atheism for the same reason there’s no evidence to support theism. In my opinion, skeptics (who are disproportionately atheists/agnostics compared to the rest of the population) get draw into head-butting contests with religion because there is a MUTUAL belief conflict. Both sides hold on to something but can’t have evidence, hence arguments to either side are a direct affront. It’s like if you had a closed box, and one person said: “The inside of this is blue” and another said “No, it’s green.” That’s really all you have. The other side’s assertion is that the first side is wrong, but that’s as deep as it goes.

      4. The first step to wisdom is knowing you know nothing. – The alternative is of course to state: “We don’t know what’s in the box, nor is there any reliable information to assume what is in it.” But for some reason people, even skeptics, seem to like to draw conclusions rather than admit to fundamental gaps in knowledge.

      At that point, the conflict disappears. If somebody says “I know what’s in the box” then you can say “There is no evidence to know what is in the box, so clearly your belief is purely a matter of faith. Moreover, since there is no evidence, any assumption is as good as another.” There is no “misconception.” Conceptions are all that exist for some things, for lack of primary sources of evidence.

      5. Clearly this does not apply to more material matters. – The converse does not work. While it’s fine for an evidence-based approach to state that anything is equally valid in the gaps, it’s not fine for a non-evidence based approach to override knowledge that we have that fills gaps. I.e. Just because somebody doesn’t belief in gravity, evolution, etc doesn’t mean the evidence should be disregarded. Basically, one can’t replace the provable with the unprovable. But by the same card, sometimes you can’t replace the unprovable with the provable. Which is even true in physics, unless anybody has debunked Heisenberg uncertainty recently.

      • Marella says:

        “On the other side you have the argument that God and/or a creator of the universe is unlikely? Unlikely based on what?”

        Based on the fact that the universe is a very complex entity and its creator would therefore have had to be even more complex. Complex entities in our experience are the result of billions of years of evolution, they do not exist ‘eternally’, ‘outside of time’, or in any of the other meaningless ways espoused by the religious. God is a self contradictory concept.

      • Jackweline says:

        Cool. What’s your evidence that it’s creator had to be more complex?


        How about your evidence that complex entities cannot exist eternally or outside of time?


        Good that you have faith though.

      • WScott says:

        Faith/God matters are tautologically unverifiable. It is quite possible, likely even, that the existence of a God (or many Gods) is unprovable for the pro or the con side.

        The existence of God may be unverifiable, but nearly all religions make claims about how God interacts with the physical world (power of prayer, etc). Those claims certainly are testable and unverifiable.

        The first step to wisdom is knowing you know nothing.

        Yes, but it’s not the LAST step. If we never ask questions, we never advance.

      • Jackweline says:

        Testable and verifiable, I think.

        But the example you give is not testable – no religion states that God will answer prayer on time, in a detectable manner that obviously relates to the problem at hand – since you never know when He’s supposed to answer these prayers you can’t test whether he does.

  20. Arnold Jamtart says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that skepticism is hard — it seems to be the opposite of the way we’re inclined to think, and it takes practice and discipline not only to learn it but also to maintain it — it’s like the mental equivalent of a six-pack: you use it or you lose it.

    I also completely agree that believing in silly things doesn’t mean you’re stupid — merely that you’re human. We all believe silly things from time to time. I’ve seen these things argued, and I’ve argued them myself many times.

    What I take issue with, however, is when people start telling us how we ought to behave and that such-and-such is the “right” way to convince others or advance the movement. It’s extraordinarily presumptuous; perhaps even a bit dickish (hey! irony!). There are many ways to persuade people, and ultimately, the more diverse our approach, the stronger the result. Making friendly, rational points in a non-confrontational way is sometimes effective (and certainly preferable if you want to maintain a rapport). But sometimes mockery and ridicule of an idea works really well, too. We’re status-seeking social animals, so not looking stupid is a strong motivator.

    A number of prominent sceptics take the approach that Dan advocates, and in doing so, they’re leading by example, which is great. DJ Grothe, Hemant Mehta, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Steve Novella, Genie Scott, Phil Plait, and Dan Loxton — all lovely people and wonderful spokespeople for scepticism. But as soon as someone starts insisting that this is the only way to be, they start to lose credibility and simply become an irritant to those among us who don’t particularly like to be told what to do.

    Besides, it’s a waste of breath. Imagine running ads on television admonishing the population at large for treating one another poorly or running with the slogan “Don’t be a dick!” What purpose would that serve? People would nod their heads or roll their eyes, but their behaviour isn’t going to change. People who are being dicks (by whatever criteria you choose) either don’t feel that they are being dicks or they do but feel somehow justified in doing so (i.e.: they’ve found exceptional circumstances where they should be dicks, so the mantra doesn’t apply). Now, given that this approach clearly isn’t going to work with the general population, why do we think it’s a good message to try to push among the sceptical subset of that population?

    • B N says:

      “Imagine running ads on television admonishing the population at large for treating one another poorly or running with the slogan “Don’t be a dick!” What purpose would that serve?”

      If we can reach JUST ONE person who won’t cut me off in traffic on a long driving trip, it will be worth the ads. :) With that said, having a more diverse message only works if you assume that each element of diversity has a net-positive effect. I don’t see any reason to know if it does or not, but it is quite possible that the alienation caused by “being a dick” outweighs any gains from “humiliating people into recognizing that they don’t think.” Again, probably situational and unknown at this point, but food for thought.

    • sowellfan says:

      I’d submit that maybe telling people not to be dicks will work *more* effectively with the skeptical community than with other groups of people. At least, if you approach it by saying “Don’t be a dick, because the evidence shows that being a dick is counter-productive, in terms of changing people’s minds”, rather than just saying, “Don’t be a dick.” Ours is a community that generally respects positions that are based on actual evidence, and if the evidence shows that dickishness is counter-productive, then many people are willing to at least attempt change.

  21. tmac57 says:

    A potential customer drives up to Skeptimotors in a smoke belching,rusting 98 Woomobile and rattles to a stop. Salesperson Mal strolls out, spits on the ground,folds his arms and front of him and with a smirking tone says “nice bucket of bolts ya got there loser. I’d ask ya what you were thinkin’ when ya bought that piece of crap,except it’s obvious that you couldn’t string two neurons together to come up with a thought!. Tell ya what I’m gonna do.You take a look round here and you’ll see that anything here is better than your f**ked up waste of metal,and when your ready,give me a call!” Mal throws his business card at the customer’s chest,spits again and saunters off.
    Next, salesperson Amy comes by, and with a smile says, ” I saw you looking over our lot. We have some of the finest cars made, here. Skeptimotors uses the latest science and technology to produce vehicles that have not only the best gas mileage, but also have the highest safety,best handling on the road,and are the most reliable. But, don’t take my word for it, I can show you the latest research to support those claims, and I would be happy to answer any questions that you may have. If I can help you with anything, please don’t hesitate to ask”. She hands the customer her card, shakes his hand and smiles. (Fin)

    • Max says:

      I don’t trust slick salespeople who say their product is the best on the market in every way.

      • tmac57 says:

        Neither do I, thats why I don’t take their word for it. I want to see the latest research.

      • Marella says:

        I don’t feel that car sellers are actually my preferred role models in life thanks all the same, or salespersons of any type actually. I’d rather people thought I had a little integrity.

      • Majority of One says:

        Wow, and they say people don’t really take the bible literally. Missed the point a little, maybe?

      • tmac57 says:

        Wow, writing secular parables is much trickier than I thought!

      • Jackweline says:

        It’s not your fault, you made the assumption that your audience wasn’t stupid enough to deliberately miss the point.

  22. Mike McRae says:

    Excellent post once again, Daniel.

    Rationalists should be encouraged to match their viewed goals with their method and media in the very same way they would any other claim – looking to the evidence and doing more than making assertions. I’ve lost count how often I’ve seen ‘It takes all types’ and ‘it worked for me’ in response to being challenged on a choice of outreach. Those responses don’t work when it comes to supporting a belief in ghosts or alien visitation. Why should they when it comes to defending how you communicate?

    Aggressive language works well, if you’re a politician. Comedy is great, for entertainers. But changing minds by using emotional language is the very opposite of what rationalists seem to desire of their community. ‘Believe me because it sounds ridiculous’ is very different to ‘Think scientifically, and hopefully you will agree with me’.

  23. I’m going to say it. There’s nothing wrong in utilising baseball bats to deliver a message.

  24. TryUsingLogic says:

    A great article on being reasonable and rational about the challenges of being a skeptical thinker and using critical thinking. I too, was greatly moved by Phil Plait’s talk and got the honor of personally thanking him for the talk. I’m sure Phil and I would not agree on everything, but my respect for him could not be greater. And, Daniel, it is great to read your articles and benefit from you growing presence in the skeptical community! Keep up the great work! I was drawn to the Skeptical community by the the thoughtful writings and talks of Michael Shermer and went to TAM 4…..have attended every year since!….. I also was very impressed by Carol Tavris and had the pleasure of meeting her…..and as she said [paraphrasing]……If someone beieves in the Big Bang, evolution, separation of church and state, “science rules!”…etc…. and thinks “God” planned those things[which I clearly question]……It might just be “close enough” to what really is important to improve all our lives!


  25. Isn’t belief in things paranormal,god and religion all part of the human evolutionary process and shows that humans are still evolving, that some humans are further along the evolutionary trail than others and that some humans will never evolve beyond the primitive stage. I know people who still look and think like apes.

    • WScott says:

      My favorite response to a creationist who was bitching about the idea that we descended from apes: “I can’t say; I’ve never met your family.”
      (And yes, I know “descended from apes” is inacurate anyway.)

    • Jackweline says:

      Evolution is not a linear process, there is no ‘further’ along an evolutionary trail, there is no ‘more evolved’.

      Those, like you, who think there is, just aren’t as evolved as the rest of us.

  26. Majority of One says:

    Great talk by Phil. Excellent follow-up by Daniel. I really enjoy reading yall’s blogs.

    I had an opportunity not to be a “dick” (bitch in my case I guess) this week at a continuing education seminar. I was seated next to a lovely woman from the west coast who started talking to me about homeopathy. I finally told her I thought it was total crap (my exact words). She really didn’t miss a beat on that one because she’d probably heard it a million times before. She then asked me, “well, do you know what raiki is?” (not sure of the spelling) to which I replied, “of course, I know exactly what it is.” But, at this point, I decided I was going to listen to her instead of outight dismiss it. She then went into her spiel about it being backed up by “a ton of scientific research.” After hearing the “science” I told her, “in my opinion, they’ve used science to ‘sell’ this to you but what they’ve done is used the science to get you so far, then they’ve taken a huge leap and said that a person can somehow manipulate another person’s magnetic field. That part is “not science.”

    Anyway, I felt this second approach really reached her. She bought in to the science and then went along for the rest of the ride…something I’ve been guilty of myself. I know that what reaches me is someone explaining to me where I’ve made my error, not telling me I’m stupid for having made said error. I think I’ve made a new friend.

    Thanks guys for getting out there and doing the work you do. It is truly appreciated.

  27. Bob Carroll says:

    If causing people to think, argue, and discuss an issue is the measure of a talk, then Phil’s “don’t be a dick” talk was an 11 on a scale of 10. I admit I was puzzled by the talk when I heard it, but then I’ve developed a rather thick skin after having had every abuse imaginable hurled at me over the years, expressed in the vilest, most uncivil language imaginable. None of the abusive dicks have changed my mind about anything, but then neither have most of the sweet and kind homeopaths, energy healers, alien abductees, creationists, etc. Those who have changed my mind (e.g., about multiple personality disorder) have presented their case in a non-threatening, non-abusive, caring way. By caring I mean that they obviously cared that I understood what they were saying and why they were saying it. The mind change came from considering their evidence and their arguments, not from their being nice. But if they were abusive and threatening, it would have made it all the more difficult for me to give their arguments a fair hearing.

    I now see that Phil’s speech was in response to something he’s been observing among skeptics in chat rooms and on blogs. He cares passionately about educating people and sees that that difficult job is made all the more difficult by dicks. Of course no dick will stop being a dick by being told to stop being a dick. And being a pussy is not the alternative to being a dick. In fact, some of the biggest dicks are also pussies: while threatening to dismember you or your family members for being so stupid or blasphemous, they bask in the adulation heaped on them by admiring little dicks.

  28. Mark Hausam says:

    I agree with those who say that ridicule and anger can be effective and appropriate tools in dealing with false and perhaps dangerous claims–sometimes. But, as Phil and Daniel have said, they must be used carefully. I’ve often heard people who try the “anger and ridicule” approach substitute these instead of careful, rational argument. We should speak the truth straightforwardly, but there is no reason why that must preclude speaking it carefully and calmly. And we should be willing to listen to what other people have to say, and even be vulnerable enough to ask ourselves if we really have sufficient reason to conclude that we are right. If we are right, we come out of this experience all the stronger, and become more effective at helping others see the truth, having taken their views seriously enough to think through them with some thoroughness.

  29. dj says:

    Why can’t we be like the two women in the park who sit quietly on a bench and mind their own business?

  30. Roxane says:

    While “Don’t be a dick” got everybody’s attention, it also got people focused on dickishness. If he had said, “Use ALL your social skills, not just your debating ability,” nobody would have remembered the talk.

    Personally, I take great satisfaction in being ultra-nice to Christians. I almost court them. They tend to tense up around me, because they know about the whole baby-eating atheist thing, since they have to watch me read Hitch, Dawkins, Mehta and Dennett in the lunchroom, but I keep being nice to them. I want them to have to confront the idea that I love my family and friends, just like they do, and that I’m a good citizen, just like they are. I’ve taught some of them to knit. I want the idea that I will burn in hell for all eternity to really, really bother them.

    • kittenevil says:

      “I want the idea that I will burn in hell for all eternity to really, really bother them.”

      Realizing that everyone I loved would probably spend eternity in hell was the catalyst that led me to reject Christianity and embrace skepticism. I hope they too are bothered by this thought.

  31. AZAtheist says:

    Good post, Daniel and Phil gave a memorable, thought provoking speech. I listened carefully and appreciate his example, his anecdote about talking to the young creationist–good job. However, how would the story have changed had he attended a presentation at a local church where two traveling evangelists where one was giving an evening presentation about the wrongness of evolution and the other was presenting his “evidence” for a young earth. Could he keep his dickness at bay when someone in the audience called him a “monkey?” As a bonus, realizing that the evening seminar followed a school day where these “experts” were special guests teaching the children about Noah’s ark, etc. (For those that want to take a peek at the “powerful” organization in Arizona that hosts these events:

    While attending TAMs and other JREF sponsored events, it would be easy to get complacent and start taking shots at other skeptics but while we’re in the mood for understanding, don’t forget to understand your brethren in reason. Take into account, their situation and what they may be up against. For some, a biting wit or cold factual assault might be the best approach where in other cases, such as an adult talking to an impressionable 16 year old may take a softer stance. In all cases, it’s about communication, effective communication.

    Let’s not forget that there are cases where the communication is not just between the two in the debate. What we communicate to those surrounding the conversation is important as well. People looking on while Dr. Plait carefully handled the question from the young girl got the message that Skeptics have a heart and are caring and perhaps worth listening to. That’s fair. But consider the case where a lettered professor is lecturing on the certainty of a young earth. A colder “mater-of-fact” approach may be better received by the audience while it is certain that the young earth creationist professor won’t be swayed. The curious onlooker may be more impressed with confidence and a ready supply of facts than the Skeptic’s “niceness.” Although admittedly, a dickish “YOU LIE” won’t help much either.

    Anything that gets people to ask questions and seek answers for themselves is a winning strategy in Sketpicism.

    • The curious onlooker may be more impressed with confidence and a ready supply of facts than the Skeptic’s “niceness.”

      Of course, it isn’t an either/or thing: skeptics can speak clearly and loudly, with a powerful command of the facts — and speak with respect and compassion, all at the same time. I’d be the last person to advocate for meekness or silence.

      You are quite right to put the emphasis on the onlookers. Even in a venue as small as a Facebook thread or Twitter feed, the majority of those who hear the presentation will be silent onlookers. Those onlookers do judge the credibility of the active participants in any discussion by their attitude as well as their arguments.

  32. Walter says:

    I don’t see why aliens are included with paranormal things like ghosts and psychic powers. At least with aliens we have a crude but workable idea of the mechanism by which they might visit us. But with the other things – what is the mechanism?

    • Yes, there are at least two distinct meanings of the word “paranormal.” In the stricter sense, alien spacecraft and cryptids like Bigfoot would not be considered paranormal because these would (if real) be perfectly explicable in terms of naturalistic science. On the other hand, traditional chiropractic and homeopathy are clearly paranormal by the stricter definition. If homeopathy were true, this would imply the existence a para-natural mechanism of some sort.

      More common is the informal use of the word to mean, basically “X-Files-y stuff” or “those topics usually referred to as paranormal.” Many skeptics use the word loosely, as I’ve used it here, to mean “all of the above.”

      • tmac57 says:

        If homeopathy were found to be true (highly unlikely) wouldn’t we just have to conclude that it was natural. We would just have to find out what was previously wrong with our model of nature.No?

      • It depends what we mean by “natural.” If we just mean “anything real” then, yes, a working homeopathy would have to be considered natural.

        On the other hand, if we use “natural” to mean “orderly, non-magical, and understandable using the tools of science,” then genuine homeopathy would still be better described as “paranormal” (or some similar term).

      • tmac57 says:

        You do realize that there are observed phenomena in nature that scientists neither currently understand, nor have the tools of science to explain. None of which anyone is seriously calling paranormal or magical.Right?

      • Yes, I realize that. I only meant to describe a philosophical question that bears on these conflicting word uses (ie, whether science in principle can explain all real phenomena).

        As it happens, this particular philosophical point is moot in regards to the paranormal, as there’s no scientifically compelling evidence that any paranormal phenomena actually occur.

      • tmac57 says:

        I see. I guess that we are in agreement then.Thanks Daniel

  33. Rilo says:

    I think the excellent point made is that we all live with a bit of humility. I admit I have been guilty of disparaging the silly beliefs of others (except where my kids are concerned – I like the fact that they think Santa is real). For example I feel justified in attacking religion on the grounds that it causes war and killing, yet I wonder if this is just a mask for my deeper distaste for an institution built on the supernatural. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just jealous that such people can enjoy the bliss of belief. In any case is my attack on religion obscuring the reality that in fact war and killing has little to do with religion compared to other human motivators like power, control, and conquest?

    I am 100% convinced that there is no god or afterlife for that matter. But it sure would suck to arrive at the Pearly Gates only to be greeted by some dude I tore apart in an argument the week prior. Science/skepticism are iterative self-correcting processes and you never know what you might learn. Supernatural belief used to be science. Glad I wasn’t around to fall on my sword claiming that Zeus made lightening.

  34. WScott says:

    A lot of people seem to be confusing “polite” with “meek,” or even “weak.” It is possible to stand up for your beliefs and make a strong, evidence-based argument without insulting people – seriously, you should try it sometime.

  35. JGB says:

    Sometimes not being a dick to the one is being a dick to all the rest
    Let me explain… I teach an astronomy course and sometimes I have students who are fans of things like Astrology, UFology, young Earth theories, etc. My first reaction to all of these topics when broached is to establish the context (this is an Astronomy course, not a paranoral studies course) and then allow a short discussion of these topics in this context. I usually give a lot of room for students to ‘save face’ by wrapping up the discussions with a summary like, “Whereas there doesn’t seem to be an astronomical basis to Astrology there are other sociological and psychological factors – like engendering a positive mental attitude – which may be active here. But, again, there’s not really any Astronomy going on here.” Typically that addresses the topic and ends it (and many students have come up and comment on how open-minded I am: even though I’m debunking these things I am not calling it bullshit)

    Occasionally, there are students who will not let go of the topic and persist after everyone else is ready to return to the class material. When they are impervious to gentleness (and reason) and getting back to the lesson plan becomes a tug-of-war I have to be a dick. I have to say something offensive to them like, “No!”. I do not take the time to ‘be sensitive’ to them and protect their feelings while they’re being insensitive to all the rest.

    There is one crucial aspect to this: the other party refusing to let go of the topic and demanding that you continue. Once they do that they lose the right to courtesy. Like dealing with religious missionaries or telephone solicitors: sometimes you have to be a dick out of self-defense.

    • It’s not my intention to define dickishness, but I must say this isn’t the sort of thing I have in mind. It isn’t discourtesy to decline to allow your class to be hijacked.

      My advice isn’t to mollycoddle anyone, nor to be a doormat — but just to be thoughtful, to be as generous as the context will allow, and to refrain from deliberate cruelty.

      • JGB says:

        I see your point.

        There is a difference between telling someone “I’m done with you.” and ridiculing them.

      • Max says:

        There’s a difference between persuading someone that his beliefs are wrong and getting someone to stop disrupting class or bothering you.

    • Max says:

      It’s like the old saying, “Those who are kind to the cruel, in the end will be cruel to the kind.”

  36. ed says:

    When someone first offered to pray for my wife when she was dignosed with lukemia, I said sure. Why not? What I have learned since is that by praying for someone in a group setting these folks, who havent even met my wife, believe they are doing something positive and helpful when in fact they are doing nothing. I can’t let that go anymore, so now I encourage people to donate to their favorite cancer research charity if they want to help.

    • you are so right. When i was diagnosed with breast cancer, a friend offered to put me on the prayer list at her church. i thought about saying sure and why don’t you write a letter to santa claus on my behalf while you’re at it? but i said go ahead, pray for me.
      I think now i would ask for a different kind of help, like a donation to research.

      because now that i am all better, i am sure she thinks the prayers helped.

  37. JJ Vastiau says:

    In Europe, we are in a war, because Social Security supports alternative medecine.

  38. TryUsingLogic says:

    My brother recently had serious healthcare issues and the hospital Rev. came buy and offered to pray for him……we said thanks, but wer are not religious..[resisted being a dick]…..but having been through many health experiences wanted to say this…..maybe you could come buy and set with him for an hour and make sure the staff answers his assistance calls and help us eliminate mistakes which would make your God very proud of you? But out of respect we said if we feel we need you we will ask…he gave us his prayer card.
    We were in a great care facility, but personal help is critcal for the safety of patients…..Sadly, when the government slowly takes over the medical system there won’t be enough prayers,preachers, or friends to help those who truly need protection from the beauracracy caused human mistakes. There will just be disfunctional government employees that can’t be fired……too bad prayer doesn’t work!

  39. MadScientist says:

    “… most pseudoscientific beliefs are not stupid. They’re just wrong.”

    What was it the ancient Romans would say: stultus est in errore perseverant? The idiot persists with (his/her) mistakes. So, after putting in a decent effort to teach someone where they’ve gone wrong, if they persist then we can surely call them ‘stupid’. I’ll put the “beliefs are not stupid, they’re just wrong” in the same category as “guns don’t kill people, people do”. Sure we are giving an abstract (‘belief X’) human characteristics (‘is stupid’) but this is a common pattern of speech in the English language and accepted by most (English speaking) people. Let’s not get all lawyerly and redefine things, mm’K? After all it really is silly to play that game: “it means whatever I want it to mean, no more, no less.”

  40. narges says:

    in simillar or equal cicumstances, what make one an eskeptic or a beliver?
    sometimes I really feel helpless fronting a beliver!
    sometimes I wonder if she/he is able to think or reason…

  41. erikthebassist says:

    For 3 days i’ve been watching this debate rage, across the multiple blogs and forums, and not once have I seen a single individual bring one shred of empirical data to the table. I’m absolutely amazed to see skeptics toss the same emotionally based anecdotes back and forth, overand over again, without a care for whether there might be a scientific answer to the question at hand, to be or not to be, a dick.

    We’ll have some data in a year or two when we find out if the great Don’t Be a Dick experiment of 2010 manages to change the tone of the skeptical community at large. After all, Phil is carrying out the perfect test of his own hypotheses, is he not?

  42. erikthebassist says:

    Holy crap I’m tired, multiple typos despite 2 proof readings and I didn’t even realize this thread went quiet more than two weeks ago, ignore me, I’ll post a better version where the conversation is still active, sorry.