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The War Over “Nice”

by Daniel Loxton, Aug 27 2010

Candle banner imageSkeptics and parallel rationalist communities spend a lot of time on “inside baseball” — jargon-filled debates about technical matters that seem incomprehensible, dull, or ridiculous to outsiders. These shouldn’t be the main skeptical topics (shouldn’t we be busy solving mysteries and educating the public?) but some discussion on these matters is unavoidable and worthwhile. Many movement-oriented skeptics and organizations have things they hope to accomplish; with goals, there comes discussion of best practices.

Among these insider debates, none is more persistent than that of “tone.” Hardly a week goes by that some tone-related tempest doesn’t spill out of its teacup and across the blogosphere. And yet, these issues matter to many (including me). When people devote enormous energy to skepticism, dedicate careers to skeptical outreach, or generously commit volunteer hours or donations to skeptical projects and organizations, it’s natural that abstract internal debates about the soul of skepticism are perceived to have powerful importance.

The passions of many have been swept up in the ongoing scrap about Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” speech at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s “Amazing Meeting 8″ conference in Las Vegas. The skeptical blogosphere began buzzing even as Plait delivered the speech, and hasn’t yet stopped. The debate has reached a new level of feverishness in recent days, after Plait posted the entire video of the speech online. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s a powerful speech which is well worth your time.)

The flood of reactions — many hundreds of lengthy comments, dozens of blog posts and a teeming ecosystem of competing tweets — seem to have broken down along two main axes of debate. One axis defends (or challenges) Plait’s factual assertion that civility tends to help skeptical communication, while incivility tends to hinder it. The other axis concerns moral values.

Talking Past Each Other

The empirical dispute about the effectiveness of civility has sometimes devolved to a clash of straw men. As PZ Myers responded,

It’s a little annoying. Everybody seems to imagine that if Granny says “Bless you!” after I sneeze, I punch her in the nose, and they’re all busy dichotomizing the skeptical community into the nice, helpful, sweet people who don’t rock the boat and the awful, horrible, bastards in hobnailed boots who stomp on small children in Sunday school.

I can relate. I’m similarly exasperated when it is suggested that “nice” skeptics are trying to enforce uniformity; or it is imagined that Phil’s speech was secretly “yet another attempt to erect a skepticism-free barrier around theistic beliefs”; or it is supposed that anyone wants to take anger and passion out of the skeptics toolbox; or, even, argued that “nice” skeptics want to “go with the flow, to pretend that a thousand issues, whether it’s homeopathy or religion or transcendental meditation or an absence of critical thinking or a lack of concern about our health, are OK because they make people happy.” Where does this stuff even come from?

All this noise conceals a non-trivial amount of consensus. In general, everyone actually agrees that passion, anger, comedy, and ridicule can be useful in the right context, when used carefully and well. Everyone agrees that face to face conversations are best conducted with kindness and respect. Everyone (PZ included) agrees that fact-based, collegial discourse is often-but-not-always the best outreach strategy. (Consider PZ’s stated position: “I think the best ideas involve a combination of willingness to listen and politely engage, and a forthright core of assertiveness and confrontation — tactical dickishness, if you want to call it that.” To me, this sounds surprisingly similar to Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” argument: “Anger is a very potent weapon, and we need that weapon, but we need to be excruciatingly careful how we use it.”)

In other places, the effectiveness debate has bogged down in red herrings. For example, Richard Dawkins complained that

Plait naively presumed, throughout his lecture, that the person we are ridiculing is the one we are trying to convert. …when I employ ridicule against the arguments of a young earth creationist, I am almost never trying to convert the YEC himself. … I am trying to influence all the third parties listening in, or reading my books. I am amazed at Plait’s naivety in overlooking that and treating it as obvious that our goal is to convert the target of our ridicule.

This is a serious misreading of Plait’s intent, and I think rather baffling. Phil Plait is an experienced public figure, a career science communicator. Of course he knows (as I know, and as Dawkins knows) that our largest and best opportunity for outreach is often the wider audience of third-party onlookers.

Indeed, the audience of onlookers are exactly where the empirical question matters most.


How do audiences react when they see communicators speak aggressively or employ ridicule? Dawkins’ feeling about ridicule is that “I suspect that it is very effective,” but we needn’t rely on suspicion. Nor must we settle for intuitions, anecdotes (“just look at South Park”) or arguments from internal dialogue. This question has been tested.

The scientific evidence cited so far in this debate clearly favors the “don’t be a dick” argument. For example, it turns out that audiences to substantial issues debates think less of debaters who insult their opponents, engage in ad hominems, or attack the other’s competence or character.

The distinction the literature makes is between argumentativeness (the making of firm substantial points, which witnesses respect) and aggressiveness (cheap shots, basically, or ad hominems: character attacks, competence attacks, background attacks, ridicule, and so on) — which witnesses penalize. For example, the 1992 study “Initiating and Reciprocating Verbal Aggression: Effects on Credibility and Credited Verbal Arguments” found that onlookers to a debate are more impressed with arguments like these when the insults (in parentheses) are not included:

CON: [I can't believe you actually like that Canadian system! The idea's stupid!] Matt, the basic fallacy is the Canadian system puts government into the health care business. The surest way for failure is to let government do it. Haven’t we learned our lesson about central planning? Isn’t the Soviet Union having a bit of trouble with the concept?

PRO: [You Reagan conservatives sound like a broken record. You have the same objection for everything.] Government isn’t always bad, Steve. The government should be involved in some things. Would you like our national defense to be run by the private sector…

Moreover, the greater the number of verbally aggressive statements a debater makes in an exchange, the less receptive audiences are to that aggressor. Audiences find debaters who initiate verbal attacks less competent and of poorer character than their opponents — and find the attacker’s arguments less persuasive. (Audiences expect targets of verbal aggression to stand up for themselves, but nonetheless penalize targets who retaliate by matching the initiator’s level of aggressiveness.) To underline a key point: stooping to incivility has an own-goal cost despite the aggressive debater’s substantive points. Similarly, research indicates that college students find instructors less credible when they engage in insult and verbal abuse. In short, incivility makes it harder to teach people — just as Phil Plait has argued. (For an even-handed, quickie introduction to these issues, see Mike McRae’s recent “A Ridiculous Essay on Rational Outreach.”)

The finding that people don’t like bullies is perhaps unsurprising. I’ll leave it there (I am, after all, not a psychologist) and turn to an argument I’m more qualified to make: the argument from my own subjective moral values.


I have long argued that skepticism should not wade into non-empirical debates about faith, metaphysics, political ideology, or personal moral values. It is not the business of science to endorse unprovable statements of personal belief. After all, there’s a word for the attempt to attach scientific authority to whatever subjective beeswax we happen to like: pseudoscience.

And yet, it is no surprise that there is a moral dimension to debates about tone. The central question in tone debates is often said to be effectiveness, but the fierceness of the debate underlines a more visceral disagreement on a more human question: How ought people to treat each other?

Science can’t tell us the answer. Scientific skepticism can’t tell us what’s morally right — but the moral values we bring with us from outside of science can motivate us to do the hard work of science and skepticism. Trying to do what’s right is the reason I got involved in skepticism in the first place. As a humanist, as a person of conscience, I am motivated to promote rigorous scientific skepticism because nonsense hurts people. I’ve argued that

Skeptics have the privilege and burden of knowing that wrongs are going unchallenged, wrongs no one else cares about (or even recognizes). That knowledge places on us an ethical responsibility to do whatever we can.

I know I’m not alone in seeing rigorous skepticism as something that matters — as a means of helping people. Decades of skeptics have been motivated by the knowledge that people get hurt when pseudoscientific belief burns out of control. As JREF President DJ Grothe argued in his NECSS 2010 keynote address “Skepticism is a Humanism,” skepticism is “more than just a club for our little cognitive minority…to get together and congratulate each other on how smart we are.” When skeptics come together for mutual bellyaching, or self-identify as part of a movement, or take action, or speak out against false beliefs,

We’re responding to an ethical imperative that most of us feel. It’s something we express when we rage against a huckster or a charlatan. … It’s obvious that skepticism is not just about what’s true and what’s false, but what’s right and what’s wrong. … When we get riled up because a huckster is peddling quack medicine, it’s because quack medicine harms people, and we know that it’s wrong to harm people.

The Moral Argument for Not Being a Dick

I could almost save myself a couple thousand words in this essay by just writing “mean people suck” — or (as one person quoted to me on Twitter) “be excellent to each other.” I find myself astonished that it’s necessary to make this case at all.

Nonetheless, it is argued on humanist principle that “Every person needs to be accorded a modicum of respect and dignity” — even online. If I may side with the quaint schoolmarmish view, I agree: it is a moral wrong to intentionally elect to treat people badly.

There’s really no way around this: it may sometimes be necessary to say things people don’t want to hear, but, in itself, cruelty is morally bad. This is such a fundamental, self-evident moral truth that I’m really lost as soon as anyone disputes it.

Phil wisely left his argument general, inviting us to confront our own conscience. But he is right that it is trivially easy to find examples — not only of self-described skeptics being unkind, but also those who argue that it is good to be mean. For example, one blogger followed up her criticism of Plait’s speech (“Pissed me off something hardcore having to sit through him lecturing me about being too mean to people”) with the forthright assertion,

I like vitriol and venom. I like it, I enjoy it, I think it’s fun and I enjoy reading it and listening to it. A witty verbal riposte is like sex to me. … I like hate, I think it’s fucking sweet, particularly when applied by someone with great acumen and a large vocabulary.

I don’t really have a reply for that.

Some accept the basic moral argument for kindness and respect, but counter that they carry a moral obligation to aggressively speak the truth — even when doing so requires fierce confrontation. I’m sympathetic to that sentiment (I’m in the business of exposing nonsense, after all), and indeed, so is Phil Plait.

Luckily, we rarely need to choose between passion and kindness, or between honesty and respect. Here we come again to the distinction the scientific literature makes on this topic, between argumentativeness (presenting the actual case) and aggressiveness (personal attack in addition to— or instead of — valid argument).

It has been complained that the “don’t be a dick” position offers no program or solutions. I think it does. It’s an obvious solution, and the science backs it up:

Skeptics should passionately argue the merits of their case, and we should leave the ad hominems and snarling and hyperbole to the bad guys.


Even if you don’t buy the moral argument, the ethics of scientific discourse imply that ad hominem attacks are inappropriate. I submit that science-minded people should either care about ethical conduct or give up on the conceit that we are science-minded.

The ethical norms of the scientific enterprise ask us to be honest, to assume good faith, to give heterodox ideas a chance, engage in collegial exchanges of opposing opinion, publish under our own names, make data available to our critics, and so on. None of that is based upon moral goodness, but on the pragmatic recognition that science functions best when the greatest number of practitioners adopt a shared code of conduct (and a shared rejection of scientific misconduct). Most skeptics are not scientists, but we are well-advised to think of science as an ethos that fosters truth-seeking. (Similar norms apply to journalism, and presumably to those bloggers who take on a journalistic role.)

And so, I will close with two questions. Weren’t we the ones who said we were after the actual truth? And — weren’t we the good guys?

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243 Responses to “The War Over “Nice””

  1. Tyro says:


    I had two questions after watching the DBAD video which haven’t been answered by Phil or even any of his supporters.

    First, what exactly is a “dick” and can you give examples? You act as if we should all know but really, we don’t. I know what the word conjures in my mind but when you watch the video, my impression doesn’t fit with what he says. Is it just using ‘ad hominem fallacies’ as you imply at the end, is it insulting people who may in fact deserve ridicule (while also presenting cogent arguments), is it literally shouting insults at a person’s face? The latter sounds the most ridiculous as I can’t think of any examples of this, yet this is the closest to a definition that Phil gave in his talk. If it’s the second then PZ Myers would be the classic example yet Phil says it isn’t him either, so just who are these ‘dicks’?

    Second, are Penn & Teller dicks? They are prominent, they spend their tv show shouting insults at people and yes, they target individuals. I can’t think of anyone more dickish yet Plait has repeatedly endorsed them and I think it’s reasonable to believe that P&T can be effective. So either they aren’t dicks in which case who the heck is, or they are dicks in which case Plait’s whole argument is bunk since dicks can be effective and Plait himself supports them, contrary to the central thesis of his speech.

    And you say that Dawkins has completely misinterpreted Plait’s speech but has he really? How are we supposed to know that – Phil hasn’t given any examples and a straight-forward interpretation of the DBAD certainly supports Dawkins’ comments. Why do you think he has mistaken the video – is it based on anything Phil said, or is this your gut talking?

    • Travis Roy says:

      “First, what exactly is a “dick” and can you give examples?”

      This has come up a few times and I find this amazing that people can’t figure this out. Here’s an example, you’re arguing with somebody about an issue…

      “How can you not know that, are you stupid or something, it’s clearly obvious”

      The non-dick version would be

      “I think you’re looking at this the wrong way, let me show you what I see and we can see where our breakdown is”

      My wife actually used that exact approach with a friend of hers that’s anti GMO, pro-organic. He was using a paper to back up his claims… Problem was the paper cited sources that were flawed, and one didn’t even exist.

      “Second, are Penn & Teller dicks? They are prominent, they spend their tv show shouting insults at people and yes, they target individuals. I can’t think of anyone more dickish yet Plait has repeatedly endorsed them and I think it’s reasonable to believe that P&T can be effective.”

      P&T are paid to be dicks, that’s their job when doing Bullshit! They also have an audience and have been doing this for a long time. This is a lot different than you talking to your coworkers about homeopathy, or talking to your cousin about why 2012 isn’t going to be the end of the world.

      Also, I think that things like P&T and to some degree PZ is that they are getting the skeptical base wound up about a topic.. Kind of like radio talk shows and fox news get the base of the Right wound up against issues. They don’t seem to be invested so much in converting people, just informing people that are already converted.

      • Tyro says:

        So you think P&T are dicks. Do you think that Phil Plait would agree?

        And if they are dicks, they’re successful at it and have won applause and admiration from others which totally undermines the whole DBAD speech.

      • Travis Roy says:

        “P&T are paid to be dicks, that’s their job when doing Bullshit!” is what I said.. When you talk to them in person, or read most of their blog posts, they are not that diskish. They’re passionate and opinionated, but they tend not to insult.

        In fact in Penn’s Penn Point videos on Rev3 he goes out of his way to be nice and NOT diskish in any way

      • Tyro says:

        So? It’s their public persona which reaches people and is what has shown to be effective. What does it matter what they’re like in private?

        You’re also being very coy about avoiding the key questions: is the dickishness they show on tv effective, and is the DBAD speech in fact saying their behaviour is harmful (when we’ve seen that it is NOT)?

      • Travis Roy says:

        I couldn’t reply to you directly. I think I addressed that in my first reply. I think Bullshit and stuff like it is to rally the troops, not convert people.

      • Tyro says:

        I know that they’ve changed my opinions on several issues and I’ve heard the same from other people and even dick-critics like Phil Plait have raved about their show.

        That aside, this loophole of “talking to the masses” isn’t mentioned in DBAD. It’s not “don’t be a dick unless you’re talking to friends or likeminded individuals”, which is again, part of the problem. Even ardent defenders like yourself can’t seem to endorse DBAD without adding in a bunch of ad hoc elements to excuse all of the flaws. What about people like me who make the mistake of actually listening to what Plait says?

        Maybe DBAD is wrong as presented but there may be some ideas worth adopting – that may be defensible. I still disagree, but would you be willing to go that far?

      • Travis Roy says:

        I would say that there’s a lot of issues that could, and should be discussed, including this one. I don’t expect anybody to cover all the bases in a 60min talk.

        I’m glad that Phil brought this issue up. There’s a comment below about understanding your audience and who you’re talking to using my two examples as an example of how the one I listed as dickish might not be, and I mostly agree.

        Also, I don’t consider Penn Point, or their blogs as “private” the way you put it. Bullshit! was designed to be a specific way with a specific tone and that’s what they’re doing.

      • Tyro says:

        Right, because Showtime tv shows have the same reach as some blogs and YouTube videos.

        Do you ever respond to points or do you just quibble with semantics?

    • This argument does not really hinge on the dick demarcation problem. “Dick” is just slang, handy shorthand Phil borrowed from an existing internet aphorism. As PZ and others have correctly observed, human interactions are far too fluid and variable for rigid categories in any event. Instead of discreet pigeon-holes, think of a gradient of behavior — or better, as a vast equalizer mixing many kinds of behaviors on a continuous basis.

      The argument I make, and which Phil makes, is very general: increased use of “good” behaviors (honesty, fairness, etc) will tend, on average, to improve communication successes, while “bad” behaviors (ad hominems, insults, denial of platform for response, and so on) tend to have the opposite effect.

      • Tyro says:

        The argument I make, and which Phil makes, is very general: increased use of “good” behaviors (honesty, fairness, etc) will tend, on average, to improve communication successes, while “bad” behaviors (ad hominems, insults, denial of platform for response, and so on) tend to have the opposite effect.

        Daniel – that’s a chartiable interpretation of the DBAD speech, are you certain that’s what he’s talking about? He mentioned explicitly that finding examples of dicks is trivially easy yet I don’t see ad hominems or denying reponses anywhere, do you? In fact, I see the opposite: free comment, quoting opponents at length, detailed deconstructions of their arguments. How can you or Plait argue that this is a big issue in the sceptic community? Why can’t you or Plait give any examples?

        As to insults & ridicule, I’m surprised to see you mention that since you as much acknowledge in your reply to Dawkins that these can be very effective.

      • Don’t get hung up on the word — again, it’s just shorthand for all unnecessarily aggressive behaviors (and not shorthand I chose, either). Phil specified that it is trivially easy to find examples of skeptics and atheists employing “insults,” and that is obviously correct. Likewise, in the speech, he specified that he “could give specific examples” of “insult” and “name-calling.” He did not say anyone was a dick, so far as I know, but that no one should be. (This is a fundamental difference: “You are covered in chocolate” is not the same argument as “try not to get covered in chocolate.”)

        To focus the discussion, just look at name-calling by itself. Is there name calling (“woo,” “faitheist,” “faith head,” etc)? Yes, of course there is. Does name calling make audiences more or less receptive to the substantive arguments presented by the name-caller? Science seems to say that name-calling it makes audiences less receptive to those arguments.

      • Tyro says:

        Likewise, in the speech, he specified that he “could give specific examples” of “insult” and “name-calling.” He did not say anyone was a dick, so far as I know, but that no one should be.

        Are you really saying what I think you’re saying, that DBAD and all of the subsequent posts, debates and alleged tears are all about a problem which doesn’t exist?

        I feel like that excuse is one of the worst possible outcomes, that Phil was just wasting everyone’s time.

        To focus the discussion, just look at name-calling by itself. Is there name calling (“woo,” “faitheist,” “faith head,” etc)? Yes, of course there is. Does name calling make audiences more or less receptive to the substantive arguments presented by the name-caller? Science seems to say that name-calling it makes audiences less receptive to those arguments.

        I think you’re being pretty closed on this point. You’re using a study which compares debates insulting each other, you aren’t considering the effect of ridiculing, insulting and demeaning an entire group. Take one concrete example: after WW II, the Superman radio show deliberately set out to ridicule the KKK and it worked, numbers were slashed and they were a laughing stock.

        Today we have shows like Penn & Teller’s Bull**** which are built around ridicule and insults and you know what, they can work also. People don’t like to be on the butt end of laughter and insult. And the experienced communicator, as you described Plait, sees that they have a huge amount of value.

        So clearly you’re wrong, science does not show that insults always fail or close people’s minds, that they may in fact help to drive nonsense away.

        What you may argue is that dickishness has a time an place which would be fine. Then the DBAD speech could be retracted as badly flawed and we could focus on finding the best ways to deploy dicks rather than this foolish, unproductive and frankly unscientific argument that we should not be “dicks”.

      • Ticktock says:

        “So clearly you’re wrong, science does not show that insults always fail or close people’s minds, that they may in fact help to drive nonsense away.”

        You gave a singular example about a superman radio show and an anecdote about bullshit, not any science, and then threw a heaping straw man on top. Daniel never said “insults always fail” – he says they make people “less receptive”. Are you really arguing that ridicule is an effective way to persuade your opponent? Where is your actual evidence?

        The only person that ridicule helps is the person ridiculing. It makes them feel better about themselves by tearing down others.

    • Beelzebud says:

      Frankly I’m not sure why Penn and Teller are even embraced by the skeptic community at all. This last season of Bullshit, they presented more bullshit as fact, than they debunked.

  2. Tyro says:

    BTW: I’m not necessarily expecting an answer from you but I think Phil should be answering these. Giving a clear definition and maybe some examples should be a bare minimum yet he has repeatedly refused.

    This refusal has lead to all of this debate because no one know what he’s talking about. Several people think they do, but like religious sects, each person’s firm understanding is different that other people’s firm understanding.

    I think it’s inexcusable that he should have let this go on as far as he did and his supporters should be calling him out for that, not defending him.

  3. ptah says:

    I think Phil Plait had a point, but he was being a dick about it, so it didn’t go down so well.

    Which I guess proves his point.

  4. Podblack says:

    Nice. :)

    I know, I know, it’s just what I’m putting out to everyone I’m forwarding this post to. Looking forward to hugging you (nicely!) at Dragon*Con this year. :)

  5. PZ Myers says:

    The problem with Phil’s talk is that it was a bucket of mush, playing to the crowd to side with him as the white-hat good guy and against parties unnamed who were the black-hat bad guys. It’s vacuous rah-rah garbage, I thought it was terrible, and it sounded more like PR from a media personality than the kind of uncompromising assertiveness I want to hear from a skeptic.

    And your post sounds exactly the same to me.

    Once again, you list a bunch of stuff you don’t like, call people “dicks” and “bad guys”, all without getting at all specific about people or events, and leaving the impression that there is this faceless mob of horrible evil people overrunning the skeptical movement. You are being archetypically dickish by your own definition, without even a tremor of self-awareness.

    That’s what makes this whole ridiculous argument pointless. That’s why I say you’ve got no program and no solutions. It’s an unending series of whines about other people you’re too cowardly to name and behaviors you personally don’t like, which again you shy away from naming specifically, all to hide self-righteously behind a facade of aloof, objective rationality.

    While calling people “dicks”.

    Think about it.

    If it doesn’t sink in, I’ll try more incivility until maybe you notice.

    The whole premise is a self-referential failure. So far, the only tool you’ve used to try and police the skeptics is the expression of scorn for these mysterious “dicks”, which is simply a tacit admission that deep down you believe that public rebuke is a useful tactic.

    Talking past each other? Motes, beams, eyeballs. You know the aphorism.

    • Phil is not the first or only person to say this, it’s been a growing message for some time. Assuming that you’re wrong, PZ, and Phil was saying “we should be civil and articulate” not “you’re a dick”, how do you suggest he should have framed his message differently?

      • ptah says:

        Funnily, I can’t listen to Skeptoid, because you come off as a smug bastard to me.

        I know it’s entirely subjective, and not correct. But there you go.

      • Travis Roy says:

        I thought the same thing at first, until I listened to more episodes, saw his other writings and met him.

        It’s the tone of his voice, the way he reads his episodes.

        Pamela Gay I think has a lot of fantastic things to say and in person I find her to be fine… but I can not listen to her speak publicly or on a podcast, she comes off as hugely condescending.

        That’s why it’s great

      • Travis Roy says:


        That’s why it’s great that we have so many different people to choose from.

      • ptah says:

        Oh, I know it’s just in my head. And I have listened to thirty episodes or so. It won’t go away. I expect he reminds me of myself or something else that makes him sound like a huge cock, especially in the listener feedback episodes.

        As for Pamela Gay, she has phone sex voice that works great on podcast for me.

      • Deen says:

        Like I said elsewhere, around the same time I watched Phil Plait’s speech, I also watched Jen McCreight’s talk Edgy yet friendly (via Friendly Atheist). She says many of the same things that Phil Plait wanted to get across, including “don’t be a jerk”. But she manages to do so without suggesting that there are whole groups of people in the atheist movement who are oblivious enough to scream in people’s faces. She gives concrete examples, with concrete advice on what to do, and what not to do.

        Let’s just say it was instructive to watch both talks, and try and figure out why one irked me, and the other didn’t.

    • Ticktock says:

      Hey PZ,

      I was just wondering about those posts that you’ve written in the past where you have to call off your rabid followers who send threats and hate mail to the people that you criticize. Do you not see that you are inspiring this dickishness among your readership? There’s a problem when someone like Pamela Gay receives hundreds of letters of hate mail from your loyal following because you’re unhappy with her blog post.

      You say that Daniel only uses scorn and has no solutions. How about when he used actual science to defend his point? And when in his entire article did he use scorn? In fact, the only example I can find of direct criticism is “I don’t really have a reply for that.” Are you actually saying that making an argument for positive tone in debate is being a dick? I think you may have blown my mind with that one.

      • Jackweline says:

        It is interesting that PZ did not address the scientific evidence in this post but instead responded with “Nuh uh, you’re being a dick actually”.

        It’s also interesting that he doesn’t think he’s being a dick when he calls the talk “vacuous rah rah garbage” but he does think Phil Plait was being a dick by suggesting that some people out there are being dicks, and that’s not a great thing to promote.

        So directly insulting people = Not being a dick
        Saying that people shouldn’t be dicks like some of them are = totally dickish.

  6. Josh says:

    People are idiots, but they are still people.

  7. ptah says:

    Hey, I Just noticed:

    The study referenced above (“Initiating and Reciprocating Verbal Aggression: Effects on Credibility and Credited Verbal Arguments”)

    Had this in the abstract:

    “An unexpected finding was that participants overestimated the amount of verbal aggression in the discussion.”

    That ought to mean that not only can’t you be mean you can’t even seem to be mean, because if you are people will think you are even meaner than you actually are.

  8. Kitty says:

    wait so only examples from Phil count? I think one problem is so many big name skeptics were SURE it was THEM Phil was talking about personally. Big ego Dawkins and PZ were both sure it was ME ME ME. I’ve even heard they are getting into it about which of them was the intended “target”. Hello? Neither. It was ALL of us. It isn’t always about the big names. The people who make a real difference are the skeptics that share their beliefs with their fellow co workers and friends and family. You can write all the books you want, but if you think an atheist book is going to be picked up by too many fundies and convert them…that’s not gonna happen. However, my daughter was visiting her cousin who was raised in a fundie home. The girls were both in high school. The cousin was saying “you know sometimes I don’t think there is a God”. My daughter said “oh you are an agnostic”. The cousin said “wait there is a word for it!” (total fundie schooling…). The cousin is now an adult and the resulting conversation resulted in her refusing to go to a fundie college and now is a student of biology at a good state school She’s also now an atheist/agnostic and VERY happy. My daughter was trained to just be polite and respectful, while being very honest about her own skeptic upbringing and atheism. Since she did not anger her aunt and husband… she was allowed to visit and in the end, the cousin was exposed to views her parents had been “protecting” her from. If we’d been dicks it wouldn’t have worked. ALso Dawkins said at TAM that he only works with and is friends with people that feel as he does about the dangers of religion and such. That’s not a luxury the rest of us have. So how best to live with those that aren’t critical thinkers yet, but also influence them in a good way. Are you a skeptic to make yourself feel better (or to use your skepticism as a cover for a sort of xenophobic view of the UK as in Dawkins case) or are you a skeptic to make the world a better place?

    • PZ Myers says:

      Odd then, isn’t it, how after the talk I had to explain to people that it wasn’t about me, that I was not named anywhere in the talk, and that it was rather presumptuous and insulting to assume so.

      The whole problem with this nonsense is that apparently it is about nobody.

      Which means the dick problem is solved. Hooray!

      • Travis Roy says:

        “Odd then, isn’t it, how after the talk I had to explain to people that it wasn’t about me”

        Funny how so many people assumed that he was talking about you, so many in fact that you’ve pointed this out more than a few times..

        Makes you think.

      • tmac57 says:

        An astute observation.

      • Ticktock says:

        “The whole problem with this nonsense is that apparently it is about nobody.”

        How does a college professor with a popular science blog get away with such poor debating. The person you are replying to said that the problem is with “ALL of us”. You must have missed her point and skipped straight to when she said “ME ME ME”.

  9. Bob Mcbride says:

    Have not seen the video in question yet but plan to. Are we being asked to compromise away the facts in order to pick up some middle of the road types?

    • Jackweline says:

      No, we are being asked not to add dickishness to our comments when discussing the facts.

      The facts are the important part, evidence shows that dickishness, aggression and verbal attacks obscure the facts and prevent good communication. Being a dick compromises your message about the facts.

  10. Kitty says:

    oh wow another blog just said “well it sure sells books and gets people to your web site!” which may be a good point. But PLEEEZE it is about everyone, and for citing, Phil cited himself as being a dick. He offered himself as an example.

    PZ, please the universe does not revolve around you. Phil when he dies is not going to have his heart cut out and it will say “PZ” on it.

    • Badger3k says:

      If Phil, who has always come off as a big weenie and teddy bear considers his actions “being a dick”, then we may have to all be care bears to avoid the problem. I’ve never heard him being a dick to anyone, and I doubt he’d be able to. He’s always seemed a tame, harmless little man. Did he give examples, because I’m sure that my frat brothers and guys in my old unit would probably think he needs to get out more and talk to people who don’t live sheltered lives – but I could be wrong. Anyone have examples where Phil was a dick?

      So far, all I’ve seen from the discussions is that many people were extremely unclear of what Phil was talking about, others were making the apologetics round with excuses on what they are certain Phil meant, and in all of Phil’s responses he still can’t be clear so that everyone can understand. If all Phil said was basically “you get more flies with honey…”, then….Duh! An hour to say the obvious? Really?

      I can see if someone says “You are stupid! A moron! Believing in garbage..” – now, that we know what that is, surely we can see examples of this so we can look at the context and see what, if anything, the individuals were trying to do. Since it is trivially easy to find some, let’s see them. Show me the evidence, please.

      Or is that being too much of a dick?

      • Jackweline says:

        An hour to say the obvious? It’s so obvious that you’ve apparently forgotten to apply it yourself here. Or are you not bothered about catching flies? Would you just like to air your views for your own pleasure?

  11. Deen says:

    Nice article, but I think you’ve left out an important factor: dickishness is in the eye of the beholder. Mere statements of fact can already be seen as “dickish”. There are also double standards all over the place. As Dawkins once pointed out, he’s being called “strident”, or even “aggressive” and “militant” merely for using a tone that would be totally acceptable in a restaurant interview. There is definitely a point where you can’t let the culture at large prescribe what the appropriate level of dickishness for skeptics (or atheists) is. To a certain extent, we’re going to have to defend the right to be dickish to some people. After all, it is unreasonable to expect us to always walk on eggshells, desperately trying to never offend anyone.

    By the way, the idea that Phil Plait’s speech was at least partially about protecting theism is not that strange. “Tone arguments” like this speech are made against vocal atheists all the time. It also didn’t help when in his third post about his speech, Phil Plait mainly talked about how two of his friends were being “ostracized” in the skeptics community for being theists.

    • Deen says:

      “restaurant interview” should be “restaurant review” of course…

    • J. J. Ramsey says:

      Deen: “Dawkins once pointed out, he’s being called ‘strident’, or even ‘aggressive’ and ‘militant’ merely for using a tone that would be totally acceptable in a restaurant [review].”

      Except that, IIRC, the examples of restaurant reviews that he had mentioned didn’t include things analogous to calling people “faith-heads” or his bit about the “Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists,” which as Orac had pointed out, amounted to calling the NCSE morally cowardly. That’s not just being stern and matter-of-fact.

    • Jackweline says:

      Well you’re not wrong, PZ thinks it’s dickish to say that anyone’s being dickish and they shouldn’t be if they want to get through to people.

      Perhaps though, you should examine the research mentioned in the post to see what kind of dickishness is being talked about.

  12. Yogzotot says:

    I agree that Phil’s talk was unsatisfactory while unspecific, people were yearning for specific examples.

    However, Daniel’s take on it is quite refreshing, especially when again pointing out that Phil and PZ Myers actually agree on what I believe is the core of his argument (see the quotes above): There is a range of tools in the box who are more or less effective depending on situation, topic, audience, and most importantly your goal. So please reflect on this, once in a while. Pick your goal and the right tool.

    “Being a dick” for me means being *unnecessarily* (and maybe even unconsciously) confrontational.

    “Don’t be a dick” doesn’t call for anyone to forego specific situations, topics, audiences, goals or their personality. It is not about forcing a homogenous behaviour, on the contrary. It is just a reminder not to lose sight of what you are doing and how you do it.

    It is just sad that over this topic “sides” have formed, there is so much debate and misinterpretation, and so much lost and misdirected energy that could better be used to actually “fight the good fight”.

    Unfortunately, even PZ Myers doesn’t seem to have a consistent opinion. He keeps banging on about how awful this whole approach is, making strawman arguments in blog posts (basically equating rational decisions to “dickishness”), and spewing *dickish* (= unnecessarily confrontational) comments like the one above. Sorry, Mr Myers, this doesn’t convince me, and makes me think less of you as I would like to. But I guess this alone makes me an “accommodationist” in your eyes?

    • Tyro says:

      Point he and others have made is that no one knows what the hell a “dick” is. You don’t, PZ doesn’t, no one does. It’s empty noise.

      It’s also attacking some sort of strawman since the “dick” that many people imagine just doesn’t exist. If PZ isn’t a dick and Penn & Teller aren’t dicks then who the hell is? (Remember that it’s “trivially easy” to find examples.) So think of which prominent sceptic is more “dickish” than PZ or P&T. Go it yet? Cause I don’t. I don’t think they exist, which makes the whole meaningless exercise even worse.

      Kudos to PZ for responding to this emotive pablum with a bit of cold water.

      • Badger3k says:

        This reminds me of the bible – everyone reads whatever they might think into his speech, and his subsequent attempts to … er….”clarify” (assuming that is what he was trying). If this is the best skeptical attempt at clarity, it would be on FAILblog.

      • Jackweline says:

        How about reading the post and seeing what types of dickishness was referred to in the study? That might give you a clue about what people are talking about.

        If you don’t think PZ is sometimes a dick and that P&T aren’t either, then you definitely don’t know what people are meaning by ‘being a dick’

  13. Kitty says:

    No PZ, don’t be silly, there are dicks in every walk of life. Even the most remote tribe in darkest reaches of Africa has their “dick”. To say “there are no dicks” is to say every village does not have an “idiot”. Sometimes they are the same person! Anne Coulter is a “dick”. Even if she hasn’t got one which may just be her problem. I don’t think she converts people to being Republican butpeople sure enjoy reading her books and she makes them feel good. So maybe dicks have a place. Like they all seem to get jobs at the DMV.

  14. Uzza says:

    One person’s dick is another’s … oh, never mind.
    My point is that what constitutes ‘being a dick’ is not the same for everyone. Yet people talk as if any specific utterance can be classsified as [+ dick] or not.

    Travis Roy gave good examples above, and i can garauntee that if I used his non-dick example on the job site I’d be considered an over-educated snob and people would be insulted by my using that language. They are much more receptive to “You’re a fucken idiot.”

    At the same time, when I go on campus I really need to shift to a different register, where Travis’ advice holds.
    Communication depends on an ability to fit the message to the audience.

  15. Is anyone else feeling kind of like they did when their parents argued? Or is that just me?

  16. Steve says:

    My only hope is that a Southpark episode is made of all this.

    Daniel, thanks for providing data to back up your argument.

    • Brian The Coyote says:

      All this makes me think of the “Dicks, Pussies, and Assholes” speach from Team America.

  17. Just Al says:

    There were two things that I found highly questionable about Phil’s talk, and they still exist here. The first is, that this is so prevalent as to require such a lengthy dedicated talk to it. I’m as active on forums as your average rabid skeptic, and I don’t see it happening very often at all.

    The second, and much more distressing, was how Phil actually resorted to tactics that we decry from the fuzzy thinkers, from our opponents – I talked about these here and here. It’s been asked time and time again: examples? And roundly ignored.

    As for the studies listed above, I have some difficulties with them. It’s exceptionally hard to quantify how effective various approaches are, since we do not see the ultimate results from them for quite some time – weeks to years, perhaps. Rating aggressiveness is one thing, but it doesn’t indicate whether the initial negative reaction, from someone who’s being asked to be rational and is being tested, is a lasting thing or is sufficient to actually change someone’s mind. I can only provide anecdotal support, since I do not perform studies, but I certainly remember the embarrassment of being trounced, and even the anger from someone when I really screwed up, much longer than praise, or calm discussions.

    So, why is that? And because this is only anecdotal, or even common experience, does this then mean that it doesn’t count at all? Of course it doesn’t – but that’s the argument that’s being put forth here. We can continue this with examples like trash talk radio (much more popular than NPR, even with the abject stupidity,) The Daily Show, and the like. When you can definitively state why people react to these so favorably, and whether or not this actually impinges on a viewpoint, then you can argue that being nice is the only effective way of communicating.

    Let’s face facts, here: many of the people we deal with are not rational. If they were, their arguments wouldn’t even exist. Are they really more likely to listen to long, patient explanations? Are you sure? Because I see a lot of people who aren’t ready to engage, who have no intention of listening to thoughtfulness. So, what then?

    Much of critical thinking deals with bullet points and sound bites: “If man is descended from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” And, “If global warming is really occurring, why was this winter so cold?” Those aren’t intended as discussion points – those are quick, memorable one-liners to be absorbed as instantly demolishing the argument. To engage in any kind of discussion is unlikely to do any good at all, to the originator or the greater audience. They’re not staying on for the lecture, and even if they do, won’t remember the details like they remember the zinger.

    But let’s say I snap back, “Nobody ever said man descended from monkeys – way to be on top of the theory, Brainiac.” What have I accomplished? Well, for one, I shot down the sound bite, making it unlikely to be repeated, by the originator or any audience member. Second, I engaged in the same manner, indicating I was ready to play by the same rules (and it’s exactly the “rules of engagement” in debates, like the Gish Gallop, that make many reluctant to participate, which is why they’re used at all.) Third, I threw the ball back into his court, to pony up to his standpoint or leave without actually scoring. And fourth, I made him remember it. Is he likely to wonder, at any time, what I actually meant by that? That’s debatable – the question is, can you definitively say “No”?

    The type of response serves another purpose, one that is rarely ever considered. The strength, emotion, and yes, even condescension of the response conveys not just that you disagree, but how strongly. I don’t say, in a calm and reasoned voice, “Bobby, don’t put that knife in the toaster, because it is an effective conductor and will potentially introduce an electrical shock into your body that may be very hazardous to your health.” I say, “BOBBY, NO!” Yes, Bobby undoubtedly thinks I’m a dick now, but also remembers that I’m not joking around about toasters. He only knows how hazardous an electrical shock is by my tone of voice. And in many of our cases, it’s not about the media-style approach of showing both sides of an argument equally, it’s about indicating that one side is so corrupt and misguided it’s laughable.

    The final factor is, people rarely ever credit someone else with changing their minds, and it virtually never happens instantly. The effective skeptic isn’t necessarily the one who presents the most patient, detailed argument – it’s the one who started the doubts rolling into further examination. This may take place in any manner of ways, depending on the person. You may not hear anyone ever credit the vicious put-down with the first step on their path to better thinking – but if they remember it, then something must have happened.

    • Petrucio says:

      It surprises me no one replied to your post. Kudos to you, Just Al, great post.

      I have often been surprised by the complete lack of discussion some of my posts have on some particularly chatty email lists I participate, post which I sometimes think were particularly well-written. I’m glad I’ve found something like that.

      I don’t have anything of particular interest to actually add and on-topic, I just wanted you to know that at least some people are reading it, and it’s great.

    • Jackweline says:

      That’s a very good post, even though I disagree with you.

      You are assuming that no-one who has been hit with a snappy put down ‘Braniac’ style will repeat that statement because they have been shamed, but the study above suggests that people are just less likely to take on board what you’re saying when you’re a dick about it. So they may well go away from the conversation remembering only “I made my point and it left him a speechless, sputtering insults to cover his embarrasment” or just “He was a dick, I don’t remember exactly what he said but he can be safely ignored” rather than “Ouch I got told”

      The differences between debating with people and telling off your child are manifold. Your child is ‘in’ with you, and probably trusts you. Your child is also submissive to you, if you tell them off for something they don’t have the option to just dismiss you, both for social reasons and because they aren’t old enough.
      Being stern with your child will work, and when necessary is the right course of action. What’s being said here is that being stern with other people often does not work, and can be counter-productive, therefore even when it would be necessary were it a working strategy it is still not the right course of action because all it will do is make you feel good, solidify the support of those who already agree with you, and be dismissed by other people.

  18. Kurt says:

    It is not the business of science to endorse unprovable statements of personal belief.

    This is true, but probably irrelevant since the real debate is whether there are any such statements. There are certainly personal beliefs that are difficult to evaluate at present but lack of present capacity to evaluate them does not mean they are forever unknowable.

    Consider that there was a time not too long ago when we didn’t have a study demonstrating that insults and invective hurt an argument. Now there is one. Thus we have gained morally relevant knowledge.

    You could argue that while applications of moral principles can be scientifically evaluated but, say, the humanist principle itself cannot. This may be true, but any alternative to humanism inevitably requires either an assertion of superiority of one sentient being or another (which is amenable to scientific evaluation) or an assertion that we should just kill ourselves (which contradicts our very nature). So, humanism wins for lack of any coherent alternatives.

    At that point, there really isn’t any reason to separate morality from science. The same philosophical concepts that compel us to defend science, compel us to assert the existence of rationally discoverable moral truths.

    (I’d also like to point out the irony of the DBAD ethical principle being promoted by people trying to keep ethics and science separate — and the inverse irony of those railing against DBAD as if it were wrong to attempt to establish a code of conduct when the opponents of the speech clearly believe you should be able to.)

    • badrescher says:

      I’d also like to point out the irony of the DBAD ethical principle being promoted by people trying to keep ethics and science separate…

      I would normally agree with you, but I don’t believe it’s being primarily promoted as an “ethical principle”.

      Keeping science and values separate doesn’t mean we must deny our personal values or refrain from expressing them. What it does mean is that we do conflate the two.

      Daniel was pretty clear in this post about which of his statements are arguments about discoverable truths and which reflect his personal moral views.

      He discusses the latter in terms of his own motivations for continuing to press this topic. He advocates adopting the “code” (for lack of a better word) from the standpoint of the former.

  19. Brian The Coyote says:

    I think it is important to always consider your target and the context. I said recently on another thread on another site (Where Phil was being crucified with such joy that I was appalled) that if I had the means I would pay a group schoolchildren to follow Sylvia Browne everywhere she goes in public to point at her and laugh. However if I were to meet any of her former “clients” who had been duped by her I would offer them nothing but compassion. Do you see the difference?

    It’s all about the target and the context, and if you’re going to be a dick, have the facts to back it up.

  20. Don’t go around with a flaming torch stabbing and beating people to death. Oh, wait, I’m not charging a specific person with doing so? …then I guess my message is invalid.

    • Tyro says:

      Don’t go around with a torch and stabbing people to death! It’s terrible and hurts our message. It’s trivially easy to find examples of people doing this all the time but I’m not going to give any because, I don’t know, maybe it would embarrass torch-bearing stabbers. You all have met these torch-bearing stabbers, you know exactly who I’m talking about and we much stop it right now!

      Oh wait, no one is actually doing this despite me claiming it’s trivially easy to find? Then I guess my message really is invalid.

      • Travis Roy says:

        oh, I’m a torch carrying stabby person.. Everybody thought I was the one being talked about, but I like to stab people while holding my torch. Let me give you a bunch of examples of why I think it’s okay.

      • Tyro says:

        Good point of why Dunning’s example is doubly silly. Stabbing is clearly wrong but many people believe being ‘dickish’ is helpful. Even you, based on your P&T comment.

        So yeah, after saying how bad it is to be a stabby person, Plait then goes to to spend three blog posts saying why it’s okay to stab some people and in the right hands a torch looks quite fine and okay maybe a little stabbing can be quite good and helpful…

        It’s laughable, even more so when Dunning & you dream that DBAD is as cut-and-dry as assault.

      • Badger3k says:

        It depends on what the purpose is – some times, stabbing can be extremly useful and effective. Other times…not so much. Take commandos stabbing nazi guards to sabotage an arms depot with stabbing a muslim cab driver in New York. We’d probably all agree that one was good and the other not.

    • Steve says:


      I wonder how soon until we start wearing “Team Phil” or “Team Dick” shirts?

      • Badger3k says:

        Can we combine them for the agnostics – a “Team Phil Dick” (or would that be “Team Dick Phil”)


  21. Gretchen says:

    I had no problem relating to the blogger who said that she enjoys dickishness. I think most people do…when it’s in our favor. We enjoy condemning stupidity, ignorance, and evil in the most strident terms possible. It makes us feel good. That’s how echo chambers of like-minded people form to complain about how horrible those “other” folks are. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing, necessarily. People need to vent– let’s not take that away from them.

    It becomes a problem, however, when it gets in the way of communicating with people, as Daniel describes. And not only that, but it also gets in the way of understanding them. “They’re just stupid/evil” is not exactly an insightful conclusion about why people believe something you don’t. Empathy is not only about relating to someone’s feelings, but also comprehending the thought processes that give rise to those feelings. You can’t empathize with someone much when you’re busy calling him a douchebag. In fact, people often employ that method in order to *avoid* empathizing. Not only do they not understand, they don’t want to. It gets in the way of that satisfying sensation of superiority.

    “Strategy” and “tone” are not dirty words when you’re ostensibly trying to get people to see things your way– on the contrary, they are vital to consider. When you start talking to and about them in terms that would offend you if directed against yourself, you’ve given up on that. I do believe that respecting someone means not refusing to give an honest evaluation of their views. However, I think attacking the view itself rather than the people who hold it should come first. Unless of course it’s someone like Ann Coulter or other similar big baskets of crazy. ;-)

  22. Chris Howard says:

    We need both “team Phil” and “Team Dick.” The Martin Luther King, Jr’s. playing off the Malcolm X’s of the movement.

    Sometimes we have to defend ourselves, and sometimes that requires being a “dick.” Most of the time we can be the rational, compassionate, active listening skeptic.

    It’s not an either/or situation.

  23. Tracy says:

    Why do I suddenly have the urge to build a giant phallus out of straw?

  24. TurboFool says:

    I’ve really got to make a necessary comment here about your quote from Ashley F Miller. As written, it sounds almost downright nasty. When I initially read it, I was mildly taken aback as while I know Ashley quite well (I was sitting next to her during Phil’s speech, and I AM dating her), that was slightly nastier than she usually gets, even with my extra context of knowing her personality and sardonic attitude. So I tracked down the quote. Seems that your fragment of it is edited, particularly stripping off the first half of the first sentence, last half of the last sentence (adding a period, as though it doesn’t continue), and a large portion of the middle. The parts missing are the very parts that provide ALL context and qualification. Actually, that’s not entirely true, as the entire comment thread is valuable, as it explains that she was mostly speaking in the context of the methods used by people such as George Carlin and Roger Ebert to make their points.

    To read the ACTUAL comment, go here:

    But the relevant paragraph, unedited, is as follows: “I’ve been completely upfront about saying that I like vitriol and venom. I like it, I enjoy it, I think it’s fun and I enjoy reading it and listening to it. A witty verbal riposte is like sex to me. Someone tearing someone apart using big words and an arched eyebrow without raising their voice — if that’s not an artform, nothing is. I would totally make out with Christopher Hitchens calling someone an idiot and explaining very carefully why. I have memorized the review of North by Roger Ebert and think it may be the greatest piece of literature written in the 1990s. I like hate, I think it’s fucking sweet, particularly when applied by someone with great acumen and a large vocabulary.”

    Suddenly seems a lot less horrific, and falls into context relatively smoothly, even without being clear what it was in reply to. I’m honestly not sure if YOU were the one who edited the comment without properly citing the edits, or if there was another source, but it’s pretty important to make such edits clear, since in this case it really DID change most of the tone of the comment. Our opponents in the creation circles, among others, are quite good at making this mistake in their favor, and I’d hate to see us fall into the same flow.

    • I will add the second half of the final sentence to the blockquote. My apologies for the omission, which was my own error. (I shortened the quote for brevity, but should have used an ellipsis.)

      • TurboFool says:

        Thank you. While brevity is understandable, the part you left off actually added a large amount of explanation to the rest of the sentence. While the wording still might suggest she likes hate anyway, the explanation of the circumstances under which it’s particularly entertaining (and especially when one understands the context of the people being discussed) it becomes much harder to disagree with. I personally rarely, if ever, act like “a dick” when making an argument, but I take great pleasure in watching brilliant people shred the figureheads of stupidity and wrongness in a refined, yet brutal manner. I find many have the same opinion. This is clearly what she’s referring to when the whole quote is viewed.

      • Tyro says:

        Hear hear.

        We should strive to be intelligent dicks :)

  25. Bob says:

    Reading over the past week, it appears those so concerned with tone, framing, etc. are immune from criticism and are not required to provide evidence to back up their assertions, though critics should have references from high-impact journals, be willing to name names, &c. It saddens me that Phil has let himself be pulled into this maelstrom and I can only hope he had the best of intent when he made his speech (having neither seen nor read it, I won’t comment on it further.)

    My interests and values include but are not limited to skepticism, so while the honey-vs-vinegar approach may be preferable for those who value skepticism highest, it is by no means the only or the most effective or preferable approach for those whose primary interests lay beyond or outside skepticism.

    Frankly, I don’t see tone being a terribly complex issue, certainly not one that deserves as much play as its gotten over the past 2-3 years. Know yourself, know your agenda, know your audience, and go forth. It’s not fucking rocket science.

    • Jackweline says:

      Yes, and I’m sure that if they had named names they wouldn’t have been accused of ‘targetting’ people, ‘attacking’ them or being dicks themselves for naming them?
      And the conversation wouldn’t have devolved into ‘that wasn’t dickish’ – ‘yes it was’

      Yes, know yourself, know your agenda and know your audience.
      If your agenda is to enlighten people, and your audience is people who do not already agree with you about everything you’d better hope that you yourself are not a dick, otherwise the evidence suggests that your message will be drowned out by your own dickishness

  26. I find it somewhat disconcerting that that quote of mine has had all context removed, which is that I don’t think being honest and snarky while being civil is a bad thing, and I’m not sure what Phil’s definition of dick is. I think of PZ, Hitchens, Carlin and Mencken as dicks, and people love them for it because they are honest, don’t hold back, and are incredibly entertaining. Is this the only way? No, of course not, but their approach is valuable.

    And I’m going to disagree with your vague “cruelty is morally bad”. Cruelty to an idea isn’t morally bad. Cruelty to a piece of writing, or a movie, or a thing isn’t morally bad. And I’m just not sure that all dickish behavior can be categorized as cruel, particularly when it boils down to criticism of leaders of dangerous movements. I’m not sure it’s cruelty to say that Kent Hovind is nuts.

    My problem is and remains that “dick” is just not well-defined, and if DBAD means don’t be a funny asshole sometimes, then I couldn’t disagree more.

  27. I think you’re missing a sizable, third faction: Those who are frustrated because they’re (still) not sure what Phil was really talking about.

    In regard to the various misinterpretations and imagined intents of Phil’s speech, I contend that he has only himself to blame for those.

    Several times I’ve considered doing a post on the Don’t Be a Dick speech, but even after reading numerous posts about it including Phil’s own 3 part post about the speech, I’m still not really sure what the heck he was really talking about.

    Phil has steadfastly refused to elucidate or provide any meaningful illumination beyond what he provided in his speech since he gave it.

    If you are going to suggest a solution to what you have identified as a problem, it’s good practice to clearly identify the problem first. don’t assume we all know what you’re talking about.

    When you make a statement (or give a speech)and your audience fails to understand you, there generally two possibilities:

    1 There’s a problem with your audience. They are either incapable or unwilling to understand your intention as presented.

    2 There’s a problem with your presentation. You have failed to adequately explain and support your position.

    Which one do you think applies to Phil’s speech?

    The fact that so many well educated persons like Dawkins have misread the intent of Phil’s speech speaks loudly to the likelihood that Phil did not clearly communicate his message. This is not the only possible conclusion, to be sure. There are numerous other possibilities, including the dogmatic biases of people like Dawkins. I don’t really know how I feel about Phil’s message because I’m still not sure what he was trying to say. I’m generally not in the dick camp as I define it myself; I did name my web site Cordial Deconstruction, after all. But some people would consider a thorough and detailed (but cordial) deconstruction of every aspect of someone else’s faulty position to be dickish and mean.

    My bottom line is that Phil failed to clearly define what he meant by being a dick in his speech and has refused to do so in the ensuing kerfuffle since then. I agree with the positions advocated by your interpretation of Phil’s speech, I’m just not sure if that was his message or not.

    All Phil needs to do is say, “Here’s some examples of things I’m talking about: hypotheticals A, B, & C. It’s not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea.” I’m reasonably sure that Phil is not exclusively referring to calling someone an idiot while arguing your point, but that’s as much of an example as I can get from his speech. May I need to listen to it again.

    The biggest difference I can see between this kerfuffle and arguing over what the founding fathers meant by a particular line in the bill of rights is that Phil is still around to elucidate, but he hasn’t done so yet.

    “Phil wisely left his argument general, inviting us to confront our own conscience.”

    Except that many dicks don’t consider themselves to be dicks. Hugh Laurie once answered a question about what his fellow actors might think of him, “Every group dynamic has an asshole. If you look around and you don’t see him, it’s you.”

    “Skeptics should passionately argue the merits of their case, and we should leave the ad hominems and snarling and hyperbole to the bad guys. Which is to say, don’t be a dick.”

    I absolutely agree with you and if that’s what Phil meant, why didn’t he just say so either as part of his speech or afterward to clarify?

    Phil basically insists we know what he’s talking about, but some of us clearly don’t. Please don’t tell me that your intent is clear and that I know what you mean when it isn’t and I don’t.

    Hummm, maybe there’s a blog post here after all….

    • Tyro says:

      Well said.

      It bugs me that Phil has devoted three blogs to this after the speech and like much reviled Mooney “Framing” incident, he has also refused to clarify and provide examples. As a professional communicator, whenever there’s this much dispute over meaning, it should be job #1 to clear things up but instead he has just assembled allies and presented emotive supporters.

      If we rightfully decry this in the woo crowd, why are so many people inconsistently granting Phil a pass?

      • Jackweline says:

        @Karl, your post relies on the false dichotomy between option 1) and 2), there are more options, take:

        3) The talk was about a specific behaviour which people have seen online. Naming names would not help anything, it would just make the conversation even more vitriolic. Those who have seen this behaviour know what he’s talking about, and agree or disagree. Those who have not need to stop saying “but who does it?” and start looking at what kind of dickishness he and others (see this OP) are talking about and decide whether they think that kind of dickishness is a good or useful thing, regardless of whether they’ve seen that kind of behaviour before.

        “It bugs me that Phil has devoted three blogs to this after the speech and like much reviled Mooney “Framing” incident, he has also refused to clarify and provide examples”

        He’s talking about a certain behaviour. He doesn’t need to isolate specific examples and say “- look this guy’s being a right dick? Eh?”.
        Read the descriptions of the behaviours that are being criticised. Do you agree that these behaviours inhibit the discussion/prevent the message getting across/cause people to dismiss what you’re saying/are morally wrong (see the OP) – Yes/No? – Once you’ve answered that then you can just forget about asking Phil Plait to target specific people for criticism. You could even go out and have a look for it yourself, if you really want to know who’s doing it.

  28. Somite says:

    Phil and Daniel have it backwards. If there is a problem, which I am not sure there is, it is oversensitivity. Some people use oversensitivity as a tool to monopolize the conversation and create off limit areas. I’m also convinced oversensitivity is a lot more widespread than dickishness. Have you ever been non-plussed at people that listen to Richard Dawkins patiently explain that there is no evidence for creationism and that evolution is a fact and think of him as “dickish”? That’s oversensitivity.

    A more practical talk that would have served much better the ultimate goal of skepticism would have been “Don’t be so sensitive”. Accept facts and criticism and don’t be offended by a dissenting point of view. If someone makes you uncomfortable just bid them adieu and walk away. Sticks and stones….

    • Gretchen says:

      I would say that’s an additional problem. Some people are going to think you’re a dick if you say that their beliefs are wrong no matter how polite you are about it…but that’s not a reason to throw politeness out the window. I don’t want Dawkins to throw up his hands and say “Fuck it, I’m just going to tell them all they’re idiotic twats for believing that,” or even something more eloquent but equally insulting.

      So many exchanges between skeptics and “true believers” are short-lived or take place by proxy (the believer reading the skeptic’s articles or blog, etc.), so the skeptic doesn’t get much opportunity to see his/her arguments are having effects in real time. That can make it seem like there are no effects, which can encourage a sense of futility– the “fuck it” feeling. But how many people turn into skeptics overnight, or even over months or years? I sure know it took me quite a while to go from an evangelical creationist Christian to skeptical atheist, and a good amount of that was due to people of those orientations being patient with me and fielding questions in a friendly way. Had they chewed me out instead, the process would have gone much more slowly.

      • Jackweline says:

        Exactly. Some people will think you’re being aggressive and threatening no matter how mild you are when you argue with them. That doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands and start being actually aggressive and intimidating.

        Some people seem to be under the impression that someone is saying “If anyone is offended by what you have to say then just don’t say it, that’s dickish” – no-one is saying that, what they are saying is “These are some specific types of behaviour that are dickish and not conducive to people listening to you. Don’t do those things. If people are ‘offended’ by reasonable stuff then that’s their problem.

    • Badger3k says:

      I’ve been to college, in a fraternity, served in the Army during Desert Shield/Storm, worked many “labor” jobs (landscaping, factory, construction), and now teach high school. The language I use at school is vastly different than what I use at home (I also live 60 miles from where I teach, so I can do this without fear of running into a parent). I am constantly amazed at how thin-skinned people are (or have become). I think your oversensitivity point is spot on. Within our group, if you want to be accepted, you better get used to insults, barbs, and slams – or else you can run away crying. If your self image (or your beliefs) are that shallow or weak that a few words can upset you – grow up. It’s called reality – deal with it or run away, your choice.

      Of course, I can bet I’m being a dick again, right?

      • Jackweline says:

        Yes, we really want to set the level of our discourse at ‘Frat boy’, ‘Army Grunt’ or ‘Construction worker’. That sounds like the best choice.

    • erikthebassist says:

      A lot of people think I’m an asshole because I speak up. All I can do is be thankful for the people in my life who get it, and remember that the few I have reached far outweigh the many who I’ve pissed off by just showing them how poor their thinking on a subject was.

      I was really on the fence about this whole accomodationist debate. Phil has pushed me off it with the DBAD speech, but not in the direction he had intended or that I expected.

      If I have to lie to a Christian and tell them that they can believe whatever they want (so long as it can’t be proven false by science) and still call themselves a skeptic, then I’m out. What’s the point? That’s essentially what Phil is advocating for IMO, as evidenced by his 3rd post after the speech.

      I’m not offended that Phil thinks we should be nicer. That’s nice of him. There’s nothing wrong with being nice, but when nice becomes a priority over truth, well, you’ve just compromised the very core of what science and skepticism are all about.

      • erikthebassist says:

        well that’s annoying. The whole first half of my comment got cut off. Essentially, I was saying I agree with this post, and related a story about an argument I’d had once with my wife’s best friend about acupuncture. The short version is that I was later accused of being a dick about it, when in my mind, it was a quite friendly back and forth over several glasses of wine. I thought we had a great time, and the discussion was never reduced to personal attacks or any sort of nastiness.

        My point was that when you shatter people’s illusions, and show them just how messed up their thinking is, it’s an automatic reaction for them to want to blame you for being a dick. It allows them to not have to immediately deal with the cognitive dissidence that you’ve introduced. Not until they get it, if they ever get it, will they thank you for setting them straight.

  29. KittyS says:

    Maybe it’s not DBAD, maybe it’s more like DBAD unless you’re really, really good at it. I agree with the anonymous blogger that a bit of vitriol can fun and even inspiring. Sometimes, after a long day of nonsense, reading a blogger like PZ Myers is balm to my soul. His arguments are gorgeously presented and heavily spiced. It overloads the senses, wiping out even the memory of pablum for just a while.

    Being an activist skeptic isn’t all results and victories. Sometimes it’s a lot of frustration with no end in sight. We need people who can channel that and turn it into productive energy. Just like we need people who can clearly and fearlessly call BS.

    What isn’t needed are second-generation dicks who enjoy the aggression and think that’s all it takes. The ones who are brilliant when it comes to insults and fallacies but only sketch out the arguments.

    Then there’s my real life, where the “idiots” are my friends and family. What I say matters and has lasting effects. I won the battle to get my cousin to vaccinate her baby. In order to do this, I needed to ignore the fact that she paid for a full horoscope chart (baby’s gonna be a healer!), that she defends James Arthur Ray, and a host of other woo-related crap. Stuff that would be oh-so-much fun to shred a million ways to Tuesday. Biting my tongue is more productive in the long run but it’s lovely to know that somebody out there will be saying what I’m thinking.

    • TurboFool says:

      This is exactly my standpoint. I’m extremely good at being diplomatic and polite whenever and wherever it’s warranted, which is honestly most places. But the people who are so damn good at being honest, accurate, precise, logical, and simultaneously devastatingly wicked in their arguments are incredibly valuable both from the perspective of showing the fools to be fools they are, and for soothing our own weary pseudo-souls.

      • Jackweline says:

        Showing that the fools are fools to who? The people who already think that they’re fools? Because the research suggests that it’s not reaching other people.

        So all you’re really saying is that this kind of discourse ‘sooths your weary pseudo-souls’ by dicking on other people. That’s unethical as discussed in the OP.

        PZ makes a big deal out of the ‘need’ for strong voices like his, that he is somehow fighting back against the forces of theism with his devastating rhetoric, but if as the evidence shows that kind of rhetoric is counter-productive to spreading your point, and only makes your fans happy, then the ‘need’ is not strong enough to require being that cruel.

  30. AmSci says:

    Well, this looks like another opportunity to strap on my chaps (yes, assless; they’re all assless) and hop aboard my hobbyhorse of skeptical value judgments. Once skepticism is seen as an organization or a community, value judgments can find themselves flying out the window. It’s the same in any “movement”. Many Christians will do everything short of hypnotherapy to convince themselves that Christian rock is good, since they feel making a subjective value judgment would be a betrayal to their cause. Or worse, value never enters into the equation. They want to like things because they agree with the larger message, not because of the value inherent in those things.

    Skeptics are the same way. Once we see ourselves as members of a community, we naturally feel a pull toward accepting the products of that movement. We want to like all the podcasts, read all the books, attend all the events, sleep with all the– Wait, maybe I’ve gone too far. (Or have I?)

    But the truth is, it’s impossible to be broadly accepting of all things skeptical and still maintain honesty in our own tastes and values. It’s the community desire to like the things we otherwise wouldn’t that I feel drives a certain kind of entitlement that feeds criticism.

    Consider this: I don’t care for the show “Bones”. The writing is ham-handed. The characterizations are two-dimensional. The acting is borderline alien. I deal with this dislike by not watching the show. It’s pretty simple, really. No button presses required.

    What I wouldn’t do is write a letter to the creators of “Bones” demanding they change the show to suit my tastes. As someone with no connection to the show other than a semi-lustful curiosity about David Boreanaz’s current physique (chiseled, with smooth edges, FYI), I don’t feel I have the authority or the right to demand those changes.

    But when a skeptic reads a blog post or listens to a podcast or watches a speech by someone who they consider to be an ally for the cause of rationalism, it’s a different story. A skeptic might feel like this person is going down the wrong path. Maybe even being a “dick”. And since the skeptic feels a need to invest in and approve of this person, there’s a desire to want to change that behavior through public criticism, private correspondence, or sleeping wi– (I’ve said too much…)

    Skeptics might sleep better if they embraced value judgments and learned to simply dislike the people, the blogs, and the podcasts that don’t suit them.

    It can be difficult. I don’t read “Pharyngula”, because I find Myers’ writing to be one-note, sensationalist, hit-whoring, and dimwitted. But I know and love many people who are big fans of his, so I’ll be faced with a retweet or a quote from time to time. Recently, this led to an unproductive and ill-advised Twitter exchange between Myers and me. I was dumb for starting it. I should have just let it go.

    Similarly, I find Richard Dawkins to be insufferably humorless, self-contradictory, and condescending. He’s alternately described teaching children to be Christians as abusing the ignorant, then advocated atheist summer camps where kids can sing “Imagine” around a fire. His stance on the possible corrupting powers of fantasy fiction is laughable. His defense of awarding the anti-vaccine Bill Maher a science education award bearing his name is ludicrous.

    Even though I’m an atheist, a rationalist, and a pasty white person, I don’t feel a need to care or appreciate what Myers or Dawkins says about anything. I share some of their values, but their messages aren’t for me.

    There’s value in trying to shepherd a conversation dear to your heart, but unless you’re willing to make a judgment and let go, I’m afraid you’re doomed to an endless, recursive argument with no solution.

    Anyway, what I’m trying to say is this: “Eat, Pray, Love” is a fantastic film for men and women of all ages.


  31. While I’m still siding with the “I can’t know whether I agree with you because you don’t define what a dick is and I thus don’t know what you mean, I must say, Daniel, I thought this post was pretty damn good.

    One thing: it strikes me as exceedingly dangerous to make universal generalizations from a single paper. I read up on the persuasion literature quite a bit after I saw Phil’s talk, and a point that keeps being raised is that there is significant variation between what different groups of people find persuasive. Different people react differently to aggressiveness, and so on. Obviously it’s too much to ask you to do an extensive literature review, but I think it’s a touch premature to come to a strong conclusion from just one (or a couple of) papers.

    • Obviously it’s too much to ask you to do an extensive literature review, but I think it’s a touch premature to come to a strong conclusion from just one (or a couple of) papers.

      I agree without reservation. I think we should expect the findings to be complex whenever human behavior is under the microscope, and I hasten to add in any event that I am a tourist when confronting the technical literature. I am told that the literature broadly supports Phil, and this paper certainly does, but I expect that the literature should be complex. However, I did want to submit this research for discussion, if only because, across dozens of posts and tens of thousands of words, almost no research has been cited in this debate to date.

      • However, I did want to submit this research for discussion, if only because, across dozens of posts and tens of thousands of words, almost no research has been cited in this debate to date.

        Yeah, exactly right. We’re skeptics; empiricists. I would think the first thing we’d do is look at the published research. I really would like someone who knows the persuasion literature to set out the main research findings. While I’m sympathize more with the PZ/Coyne/Dawkins side of the debate, I would quickly change my mind if the research showed that aggressiveness was always (or nearly always) a bad idea.

        Anyone care to do a literature review?

      • Majority of One says:

        Again, I think this is a matter of individual taste. Even if 55 or 65% of people said they prefer the soft serve to the hard (keeping with the dick metaphor) it still leaves 35 to 45% feeling the other way.

        I’m with Ashley Miller on her feelings about Christopher Hitchens. When he takes down a nut from the vatican or debates that loon Aslan, it makes my clothes fall off. I would totally do Mr. Hitchens right then and there.

        Anyway, I also like professor Dawkins’ style. I saw him speak in person and he was very kind to a guy who asked him how he could accept that his loved ones were just dead. I could tell it was hard for Dr. Dawkins to answer, and the answer he did give was pretty compassionate. I’ve been a fan ever since and it would be hard to change my mind about him at this point. Same with Mr. Hitchens (and I wish him a speedy recovery and sorry for all the name calling above) :))

        In summation, there’s room for every style, isn’t there?

      • tmac57 says:

        “Anyway, I also like professor Dawkins’ style. I saw him speak in person and he was very kind to a guy who asked him how he could accept that his loved ones were just dead. I could tell it was hard for Dr. Dawkins to answer, and the answer he did give was pretty compassionate.I’ve been a fan ever since and it would be hard to change my mind about him at this point.”
        In other words,by showing his nice side,Dawkins gained a lifelong fan.

      • Majority of One says:

        Exactly. In other words there’s room for more than one way to do things because I’m a life long fan of Christopher Hitchens as well.

  32. PZ Myers says:

    I think it’s all coming clear to me now.

    We have a problem (“dickishness”) that is poorly defined, has no known victims and no named perpetrators, but we can fix it all by being nice.

    Thank you for explaining it all so clearly.

    There are a few questions, though, like…is sarcasm dickish, or does it fall into the acceptable category?

    I shall eagerly await your next long post describing a psych study that found something about how people report their feelings when confronted with snark.

    • Forget “dickishness” (again, not my term) and reduce the discussion to some concrete component — let’s say name-calling, which Phil specifically mentioned in his speech. Name-calling clearly happens, is directed at specific people, and comes from specific “perpetrators,” as you put it. Given that, shouldn’t we want to know how audiences statistically respond to name-calling? If there is data on sarcasm or snark or hat-wearing or what-have-you, shouldn’t that be good to know? I’m not certain I understand your disdain toward the idea of psychological research.

      • Tyro says:

        I didn’t get the feeling that Phil was calling for more research. It sure sounded like he (and you) consider the question settled and that name-calling is harmful.

        If it’s an open question, why didn’t you discuss that in the OP? If it’s settled, why not give some examples of where it’s gone wrong and the harm it has caused?

      • Deen says:

        And is it really on the rise, like Phil suggested?

      • Jackweline says:

        He disdains the science when it doesn’t support his position, because like Bill Maher he has his conclusions, his style and his fanbase and he sees no reason to look to see if maybe just maybe he’s not doing it entirely right.

    • This would be a perfect example of the kind of civil dickishness I wholeheartedly support.

    • Ticktock says:

      I think you just provided us with a definition of “dickishness”, so we can scratch that off the list. Turns out sarcasm really does make you seem like a dick.

  33. John Greg says:

    PZ asks:

    “There are a few questions, though, like…is sarcasm dickish, or does it fall into the acceptable category?”

    Do not matters of degree, nuance, and context play a critical role in even attempting to answer such a simplistic question and define the category?

    I may very well be wrong, but I get the impression that PZ and many others are expecting and/or demanding an absolute and black and white answer to a question — and a definition for a category — that is simply far too broad, too nuanced, and too contextual to be satisfied in that fashion.

    • PZ Myers says:

      Completely backwards. I’m saying that there are no black and white answers, so trying to pigeonhole everything into a game of dick or not is a total waste of time.

      Notice that it is the Don’t Be A Dick gang that is making proscriptive statements. Not us in the Be Whatever You Want gang.

      • PZ Myers says:

        By the way, you did notice that my simplistic question was entirely sarcastic, right?

      • John Greg says:

        Okay. I did note that I might be misreading things.

        PZ said:

        “By the way, you did notice that my simplistic question was entirely sarcastic, right?”

        No, to be honest with you, I did not think at all that it was “entirely” sarcastic. I felt it was one of those brief statements with which the author could sway, after the the fact, toward or away from a claim to sarcasm, dependant upon whichever way the wind blew. Sarcasm, after all, at least in the somewhat context-free environment of online print, can at times be easy to miss.

        However, I am glad you clarified the issue.

      • Deen says:

        Notice that it is the Don’t Be A Dick gang that is making proscriptive statements. Not us in the Be Whatever You Want gang.


      • Jackweline says:

        No, you’re saying “that there are no black and white answers…” and therefore there’s no point talking about whether this is a problem or not. Because if we can’t draw thick black lines demarking ‘acceptable’ from ‘dickish’ then that somehow means that actually being dickish* is not a problem.

        That’s bullshit. And you’re an idiot.

        No, wait. All of a sudden you’re ignoring me. I should have said, “That doesn’t follow, despite the difficulty in distinguishing whether specific cases are definitely dickish or not, and the range of opinion within this diverse ‘movement’ of ours, it’s still entirely possible to talk about whether being dickish is useful and moral.

        *You do believe that people can be dickish right? That it is in fact possible?

        Stop faffing around your position. You think being dickish is necessary, useful and a good thing. You think the threat of theist nutters can only be opposed by rational dickhead calling them on their shit? So why all this ‘Ooh, but what’s a dick really? Who’s a dick? When?’ nonsense. Just defend your position like a man – make your arguments, don’t pussy-foot around pretending you don’t even know what people mean when they talk about dickishness. You know! – You’ve defended it before!

  34. PZ Myers says:

    I have no disdain towards psychological research. I have considerable contempt for the inappropriate generalization of psych research and the misapplication of finely focused studies to universal recommendations for social behavior.

    Name-calling happens all the time; I even indulge in it from time to time. I can also tell you that the majority of my audiences heartily approve and sympathize, and that only a small minority freak out and get upset. But I do suspect that if a study of namecalling were done in a context other than a blog or one of my talks, at say, a funeral, there would be a very different ratio of responses.

    Context matters hugely. That’s why I consider your claim “that the literature broadly supports Phil” to be so much bullshit. It can’t, by its nature and by the immense variability of individual reactions in different situations. It’s like saying “the American public supports Justin Bieber,” because even if there is a statistically valid preference, it means absolutely nothing in most situations.

    And let’s say there were some serious studies that found a large proportion of the public were annoyed by sarcasm. So? Shall we purge Mencken and Twain and Vonnegut from our libraries? Shall we tell the audiences for Dara O’Briain or Mr Deity or Eddie Izzard that their wit is no longer fashionable so they should just go home and take up some constructive work, like ditch-digging?

    We aren’t running for office. We aren’t trying to appeal to the largest percentage of the population. We aren’t interested in compromising our views or our style because someone might be offended. And I find the thought of anyone trying to tell us all that there is a certain range of acceptable behavior for skeptics or atheists or whatever rather ridiculous, especially when the whole raison d’etre of such people is to criticize the comfortable, and doubly ridiculous when you can’t even concretely define what that behavior is.

    I think you and Phil should simply concentrate on being yourselves, and if that involves unrelenting niceness, I won’t mind. But trying to tell everyone else in the community how they should be is simply authoritarian, impractical, and stupid.

    • We aren’t trying to appeal to the largest percentage of the population.

      But this is exactly it: many of us are trying to appeal to the largest percentage of the population — appealing to them, for example, to vaccinate their children or to support evolution education.

      I think you and Phil should simply concentrate on being yourselves, and if that involves unrelenting niceness, I won’t mind. But trying to tell everyone else in the community how they should be is simply authoritarian, impractical, and stupid.

      I’m baffled by one response I see often in tone discussions, and which I take to be your meaning here: that everyone should do their own thing and say whatever they like without restriction (as if anyone has the power to restrict) — so long as they don’t ask, “Hey, guys, could we cut it out with the name-calling?”

      • Deen says:

        But this is exactly it: many of us are trying to appeal to the largest percentage of the population — appealing to them, for example, to vaccinate their children or to support evolution education.

        Who’s stopping you?

      • PZ Myers says:

        Yeah, I’m on my way to your house with handcuffs and a ball gag.

        You criticize, I criticize back. What do you expect of this sloppy spewage of the undefined word “dick” in all directions? That everyone will simply fall back stunned and announce that Loxton was right, now we’ve got to follow his suggestions?

        If you think the strategy to win over all those people who oppose evolution education is to be nicer and more popular with them, you’re not thinking. They will be happy to accept your friendship, will think very, very highly of you, and will happily continue to screw over American education while you bring them iced tea and crochet doilies for their credenza.

        I will be content to have the American public despise and hate me if part of the deal is that some of them also become aware of how the Christianist Anti-Science Right is an evil gang of lying con-artists. (Oops, name-calling. Can’t help it.)

      • Gretchen says:

        I will be content to have the American public despise and hate me if part of the deal is that some of them also become aware of how the Christianist Anti-Science Right is an evil gang of lying con-artists.

        And if it isn’t part of the deal? Or if it’s a minuscule part of the deal in comparison with what it could be?

      • Somite says:

        It is not part of the deal already. People that are offended by facts do not change their minds because you are nice to them. They might be nice to you back but they’ll continue to hold their fantastical beliefs. Some people are susceptible to change their minds but my feeling is that “framing” or paternalistic accommodation has that used car salesman odor that turns people off even more.

      • Gretchen says:

        I wasn’t talking about people who are offended by facts, Somite. I was talking about people who are offended by PZ.

      • Beelzebud says:

        Well said! Keep it up too, we still have free speech.

      • Max says:

        “If you think the strategy to win over all those people who oppose evolution education is to be nicer and more popular with them, you’re not thinking.”

        What, you have a better strategy to win them over? How many of them have you won over?

        Your goal is not to win them over, but to fight them. Different goal different strategy. But Phil explained that you’re fighting a losing battle because you’re vastly outnumbered.

      • Tyro says:

        Your goal is not to win them over, but to fight them. Different goal different strategy. But Phil explained that you’re fighting a losing battle because you’re vastly outnumbered.

        Riiiight… Which is why he is trying to change those numbers.

        I’m highly dubious that being nice to fundies will matter one whit to their acceptance of evolution, vaccines or other issues. They’re fighting for what they believe is the revealed word of the creator of the universe but we offer, what, unassuming politeness? I wonder how well that’s going to work. Oh wait, I can just look at the last couple centuries and see – it hasn’t.

        At some point we’re going to have to call out their bullshit and at that point no matter of politeness or friendliness will matter, and in the meantime it just delays the inevitable.

      • This is where I think people are missing the point of some of the Dick Proponents. Not everyone who, say, believes in Creationism is so firmly entrenched in that camp that they won’t ever change their mind, but a lot of them are fairly apathetic and not too interested in thinking about it or just have never been confronted with having to think about it.

        The benefit of being a dick to/about some crazy creationist nut in front of an audience is that there are people in that audience who are forced to confront the idea that this Creationist is nuts and his ideas are nuts. They get shaken up. Fence sitters get to see how truly ridiculous the other side is. And making people laugh is one of the easiest ways to get them to be willing to accept challenges to their own beliefs. And a lot of times being a dick can be really, really funny.

        My goal may be to fight one person in particular in order to win over a much larger group of witnesses. You’re not always trying to convince the person you’re arguing with. And I think you’ll find that Hitchens, Dawkins and PZ have opened the eyes of many many people using that exact strategy.

      • Badger3k says:

        Being nice has worked so well at this battle over the last few hundred years. Why since creationism hit the courts in the 80s and was trounced, the fundies have been silent and supportive of evolution. In fact, all the surveys and studies done show that evolution supporters being nice and polite has changed the landscape completely. Er…..

        It’s a matter of short term (let’s get these kids vaccinated) vs long term (let’s eliminate the superstitious/supernatural/irrational thinking that leads to this anti-vax nonsense so that we won’t have to fight this battle over and over and over again, ala creationism.

      • Tyro says:

        That sort of funny, biting sarcasm is a good example of why you don’t need insults or swears to slice up an opponent. And really, a few insults and swears at this point are just spices on an otherwise very potent dish.

        And since it’s the message that’s controversial and earning us enmity, I don’t see how we can both say what needs to be said (or, less pretentiously, what we want to say) and still honey things up to earn more converts. Are there any examples of how that would work? Perhaps someone could show how a “dickish” message could be reworded to make it more accessible.

      • Jackweline says:

        That’s your mistake. The message isn’t earning you enmity with all these people. It is with some of them, it’s true* but there are also many who would listen, consider and perhaps even agree with your message, if only you weren’t also browbeating and insulting them.

        You also have to consider – who do you want to persuade? Insecure people who can be browbeaten and mocked onto your side? Or people who you have persuaded with the inherent rationality of your position?

        I know who I’d want.

        *Never say I don’t concede the truth. There are also those who will ignore a polite but correct argument but capitulate to a sarcastic or condescending beatdown, out of fear of looking stupid.

      • NightHiker says:

        You’re not thinking straight.

        You are criticizing a method that won’t work with the “lying con-artists” but won’t alienate most of those who are honestly siding with them because they don’t know better, while advancing a method that also will not work with the “lying con-artists” but will alienate a large number of latter who don’t know better. So, if neither method will work with the lying con-artists, how is the method that will alienate a large portion of the population the better one?

        You seem to be attacking a straw man yourself, as if being intelligent about how to advance our interests would be equal to let the “lying con-artists” do whatever they want. Winning over a good, if not major portion of the population is exactly the best way to prevent the “lying con-artists” from getting what they want, and you will hardly achieve that if “the American public despise and hate” you.

      • Jackweline says:

        @NightHiker – exactly! Everything you said in your August 27, 2010 at 6:48 pm post hits the nail on your head.

        No-one is saying “If only we were polite even the worst fundamentalist would listen to us!” – there are and always will be those who are completely unreachable. All that’s being said is that a dickish presentation merely increases the percentage of people you aren’t going to reach. Also it’s not that ethical unless you have a good reason.

      • NightHiker says:


        “And making people laugh is one of the easiest ways to get them to be willing to accept challenges to their own beliefs.”

        making people laugh at others, not making people laugh at themselves. The truly fundamentalist people are a minority as we are, but the divide among them and the majority of people is smaller than the divide among us and the same people, because they tend to see their religion as a common trait. If you ridicule a religious person, fundamentalist or not, the odds of offending most of the other religious persons, no matter how moderate, are quite big. We can discuss all night long about how people don’t have a right to be offended, but that won’t change the fact that offended people won’t likely agree with you, even if out of spite.

      • I disagree, I think making people laugh at themselves is how you get them to question their own beliefs and assumptions. I mean, people laugh at what they know, things are funny when they are true and obvious to the people hearing them. You know who laughs hardest when Robin Williams makes fun of Episcopalians? Episcopalians. The Joe Pesci bit that George Carlin does, it’s funniest to people who have actually prayed. Who laughs most at George Carlin? People raised Catholic. Same for Dara O’Briain.

        I’m not saying it’s easy to do, but I think it’s important.

      • NightHiker says:


        “I’m not saying it’s easy to do, but I think it’s important”

        So, unless you’re a gifted comedian, maybe you should avoid it.

      • NightHiker says:

        Oh… And don’t forget an important part… Mood. People who watch those comedians go to their shows knowing they’ll likely be made fun of and are willing participants, which makes a big difference. The biggest problem when trying to win over religious people in serious debates is that they’re unwilling participants in principle.

      • So, unless you’re a gifted comedian, maybe you should avoid it.

        Oh yes, I forgot, all arguments must be made by brilliant public speakers, all jokes by gifted comedians, and all paintings by extensively trained draughtsmen. For an amateur to attempt any of this things is to ruin the craft and destroy forever the interest of any witness to his horribly mangled attempt. Remind me never to try to make someone else laugh ever again.

        And I forgot that people are never in the mood to laugh and only discuss anything about skepticism when in intensely serious academic debates.

      • NightHiker says:

        “Oh yes, I forgot, all arguments must be made by brilliant public speakers, all jokes by gifted comedians, and all paintings by extensively trained draughtsmen.”

        This is a straw man. First, YOU said yourself that using ridicule as a form of humor was difficult. Unless you would defend the idea that all attempts at humor, all arguments, and all paintings share the same degree of difficulty, it would be only reasonable to decide that the hardest forms of each should not be attempted by someone that is not very good at comedy, argumentation or painting, to cite your examples. So, unless you’re a gifted comedian, maybe you should avoid using a form of humor you said yourself was difficult.

        And who said people are never in the mood to laugh, or only discuss skepticism when they are on academic debates? Just more straw men from you. If your comedy is as good as your argumentation here, then you definitely should avoid ridicule…

      • Just because it’s difficult it should not be attempted? Why?

      • NightHiker says:

        It’s not attempting that’s in question, it’s succeeding. You cited three gifted comedians as examples. I just extrapolated to the natural conclusion. You can do anything you want, but unless you’re good at it, odds are you will make a fool of yourself, or, in other words, come off as a “dick”.

        Just because a few great comedians are successful even among some (but not all, and I’ not sure even many) of those they ridicule it doesn’t mean anyone should do it (and expect to be successful). Even if it works, it’s only under specific conditions on specific settings. Do you think Carlin would be applauded if he said the same things at your religious great aunt’s dinner party?

        In short, what I’m trying to tell you is you’re talking about exceptions, and sound strategies should not be based on exceptions.

      • Badger3k says:

        You realize that with this line “Yeah, I’m on my way to your house with handcuffs and a ball gag.” you’ve set a million tentacled hearts a-flutter?

      • michelle says:

        Mr. Myers,

        I am very new to the skeptical community. I was raised by evangelicals in a small, insular town and have had to find my way out by myself. I am thankful every day that I was able to attend a math and science school my last two years of high school. I try very hard to look at all the facts concerning things before making decisions, and I use what tools I have available. When I discovered all the different skeptical blogs, I avidly began reading as many as I could. I worked my way to books by prominent members of the community. I have been growing in both confidence and abilities as a skeptic. Your tone, as well as Dawkins’, does occasionally startle me, but I am a willing listener and have learned much from you both. I am thankful for all the voices available. However, it is the comments section in many of these blogs, on skeptical youtube videos, or articles that concern me. If people are having trouble finding the “dicks,” they aren’t reading the comments. These comments are left by people with no more scientific training than I (and, judging by the errors in the comments themselves, also considerable less instruction in English or the use of spell check). Look at the comments section of nearly any Mr. Deity Video (or Dawkins or Sagan) on youtube. People who present themselves as skeptics quickly deteriorate into spiteful emotive name calling mud slinging contests with equally nasty religious people. However, the mud gets slung at ANYONE with any opinion other than the commenter! When I first began testing the waters of the skeptic community, that was my first experience. Arrogant dicks who were more interested in calling me names for my first few years as a child of christian parents than in helping me to find my way out of that life. People so smug in their atheism that they found it inconceivable that a child(!) would have believed the only world view that had ever been presented them – even if they later leave it as an adult! I had to wade a lot deeper before I found blogs such as Pharyngula. If I had not known a few very kind atheists personally, or had not been so desperate to find a different way to raise my children, I may have never got past that “dickish” exterior. Mr. Plait was addressing a room containing average, everyday skeptics, not just a closed room of leaders in the community. Perhaps it really did have nothing at all to do with you, or Dawkins, or anyone else of prominence. Perhaps the examples he says are so easily found are not in the blogs themselves, but in the comments? At the end of the day, isn’t it the people we meet with on a regular basis who shape our opinions? I am not as witty or as intelligent as either your or Dawkins. That is why, when confronted with gross ignorance, I must employ different methods than the ones you use. Unfortunately, not all lay skeptics are so self aware, and what is witty and enlightening in your hands turns into pure dickery when employed by others. They mimic the attitude, the vehemence, but little else. In the end, many of these skeptics are not only NOT winning over “all those people who oppose evolution education” or vaccines or whatever else, but they are pushing away people who are already won!

      • Ray Tupach says:

        I find myself in agreement of this PZ (if that is his real name) Myers comments:
        (1) The word dick, when used in this context is extremely problematic. It is a vague insult at best. At this level it can mean a rude person, a reactionary, an intellectual bully (which is what I suspect P.P. was really trying to say), an agitator or an ineffectual bore. The last definition excluded, I think we can identify many exemplary individuals within each classification. Phil’s claim that this term (dick) only applies to some grotesquely generalized, hoi-polloi within skepticism; not the “giants” such as Dawkins and PZ, can be easily discounted as ugly preferential treatment. Sorry guys but you’re still one of us – Gabba Gabba.
        (2) PZ mentioned an authoritarian tone. This is a particularly nasty undercurrent he correctly identifies. In fact, he is quite conciliatory in allowing that certain skeptics are useful for politicking support from the supposed undecided. Personally, I don’t think these people exist, but whatever. Loxton’s response is one of poorly masked but nonetheless, unwarranted incredulity. He knows exactly what PZ is saying. He just doesn’t want to have to go through the bother of incorporating it into his worldview, even on the level of “it could, just possibly, be valid”. And this is where he fails hard and learns his lesson; for you see, to me, Lox comes off as rather, ahem, DICKISH!
        Sorry Lox – I love ya man but you have stepped into a real quagmire and I’m forced to take sides with this PZ character – not only as a self identified dick, twat, cunt, asshole or douchebag but because, in the final analysis, he is right.

      • Jackweline says:

        Yeah, you’d think that instead of saying “Hey, don’t be a dick” we were saying “Hey, Silence Your Criticism Lest You Be Sent to Siberia!”

    • NightHiker says:

      It seems to me this whole discussion is on its head, with the feet flailing wildly in the air. While I think I understand what Loxton and Plait are talking about, and agree to a good extent, they’re using the wrong approach.

      Instead of talking about general moral principles and how people should behave, they should be focusing on what the goals of the skeptic community should be. What are they? Is a goal to convince and convert people over to the side of skepticism? I would believe so. While it’s fun to “preach to the choir” and bask on all the ego inflating attention it generates, it doesn’t do much to achieve that goal.

      It’s a fact that emotion modulates a lot, if not all of our brains’ conscious processes. Even when we think we are being the epitomes of rational thinking, we’re still being influenced by our emotions and prejudices. Emotion can further or block understanding and the subsequent knowledge that comes from it. When you’re nervous, you don’t perform nearly as well on analytical tasks, and it doesn’t really seem to matter even if the source of stress is related to the task at hand.

      Like I said before, in the same way you cannot avoid to think of your mother now that I mentioned her, you cannot ignore the huge role emotions play even on seemingly pure rational debates. Actually, the reason we use ridicule is because we know it will have an emotional effect. That might be a great tool to destabilise your adversary and “win” a debate, but it will hardly be a good tool to win over the person you’re debating with.

      Now, of course, we all agree, like Dawkins suggested, that the actual interlocutor is very often not the main audience of the arguments we use against him or her, so we may not care if we convince him or not, but it seems some ignore the fact that even those only watching the discussion posses two traits common to every human being: empathy and emotional attachment to their own ideas. If you ridicule your interlocutor, there’s a very good chance you will also alienate a big part of the audience that empathizes with him to begin with, and the emotions triggered will pretty much eliminate any chance that they view your arguments rationally.

      In the end, what I see from many in the forefront of the skeptical movement is an idiosyncratic behavior: they say they want to bring people over to skepticism, but act like they don’t care what those same people think of them. But I can assure you that if someone doesn’t like you to begin with, you will be at a noticeable disadvantage when trying to persuade him or her of anything.

      And the saddest part is that we are a very small minority with quite limited resources and still seem to find time to waste those resources arguing with ourselves on unending ego wars instead of trying to reach a consensus on what really matters: what is the most efficient way to teach people and turn them into skeptics?

      I’ve said this before on my comments on this blog: the best way to convince people to change their minds is to convince them they’re changing their minds themselves, from inside. Maybe we should stop discussing about moral principles and start to behave more like the con men themselves. Not the “taking advantage of gullible people” part, but the “knowing what makes people tick” part. I guess the resident ex confidence man on staff here will understand where I’m coming from.

      • Badger3k says:

        Does the “Skeptic community” have any goals? There are a lot of separate skeptical organizations and a lot of individual skeptics, all with their own degrees of skepticism. All of these have goals, and if these goals are opposite in nature (my “short term vs long term” comment a short bit above) – who get’s to decide? I can see a speech saying “If these are your goals, then this is what I think is the best way to achieve it…” (sorry for the weasel words, but without concrete data that such a way is best, shouldn’t we stick with the facts?)

      • erikthebassist says:

        I disagree that the goal should be to win converts, and that may be what lies at the heart of this discussion. 4% of the US population are self identified atheists, 16-18% claim no religion at all but 12-14% of them stop short of calling themselves atheist.

        16% of 300 million people is 48 million people, or about as many people as voted for McCain in the last election. Where the fuck are they all? Why does the SGU only get 65,000 listeners a week?

        I think Dawkins et al recognize that the real goal should be to get all these rational people off the couch. Most of them stay quiet about their beliefs because they don’t want to upset their friends, family and neighbors and this is EXACTLY the problem!

        We need to make it harder for believers to freely spew whatever kind of crap they want in social situations. Right now, they have no fear that any one is likely to call them on their bullshit, and that’s because only a tiny minority of people are willing to stand up to them.

        And why? Because they prefer being nice to being confrontational, they would rather let a fool think foolish things than speak up.

        You can go and try and win converts all day, I think getting the people who already agree with us off their asses and involved has a potential impact magnitudes of order greater.

        DBAD is the wrong message for those who recognize the importance of science and critical thinking to be sending out. Dawkins gets it right with the “Out” campaign and the bus ads.


      • NightHiker says:

        You’re only looking at one side of the issue. Even if it’s true that the goal of “being a dick”, so to speak, is to get other skeptics to feel more comfortable to speak up their minds, there are two problems: while there are any skeptics who don’t speak up, there are many more mildly religious persons who don’t speak up either – most of what “being a dick” does is polarize the issues, and I’m not sure that’s a worthwhile goal. What is the good of having more skeptics speak up if they find bigger opposition from religious people as well? Which brings me to the second point: this strategy gives people a perception about the skeptic movement that makes it hard for people who do want to act more aligned to the “don’t be a dick” lines, because when they are identified as a skeptic, they may be seen as a “dick” even before they really speak – I have felt it first hand. So, while I obviously recognize the right everyone has to follow the strategies they feel are best, the fact their behavior affects my own chances of success at my line of action also gives me right to criticize and suggest changes. No matter who is really right or wrong, the issue is a legitimate one. And equating “don’t be a dick” to being accomodationist is also wrong – I’m not speaking for Phil Plait, and I haven’t even listened to his speech: I’m talking for myself and the arguments I’ve presented about what constitutes being a dick or not. And nowhere I said we need to be accommodating.

        This is why I am dismayed PZ Myers’ reaction. He’s basically saying “How dare you criticize me?! Stop being such authoritarians!” – He has to be really quite self absorbed to not see the irony in that. Also, all his arguments were basically “I don’t care for the evidence, I don’t care for people who are not already skeptics, and I like to be a dick, so shut the f*ck up!” Because while he says the evidence for not being a dick is tenuous, the evidence in favor of being one is even more so.

        I never followed his blog too closely but used to feel sympathy for him, even though it seemed some times he went too far. But this episode and one shortly before are about to make up my mind that his disposition detracts fro his reasoning. I’m talking about his criticism of Kurzweil. I don’t care much for him, and the arguments PZ Myers offered were enough to show how mistaken Kurzweil likely was. But then he compares Kurzweil to Deepak Chopra??? Come on… He might have more wishful thinking than reasoned arguments going on his head because of his obsession with beating death, but he would have to be 10 times the nut job he is to even be in the same ballpark as Chopra. It’s like comparing a school bully to Idi Amin. Then he speaks in condescending tone to the people he calls “obsessive Kurzweilians” for showing up to defend the guy, as if in any post that PZ is criticized there wasn’t a small army of “wannabe pziers” to defend their idol as well.

        I haven’t followed him close enough to know, so this is an honest question: Has PZ ever admitted being wrong about something?

        In any case, the guy needs to look a bit more to himself before criticizing others. He obviously doesn’t believe in leaving people like Jenny McArthy “just be themselves”, and is pretty quick to criticize them. Obviously the magnitude is much smaller, but the principle is the same: if he criticizes the Jennys because he thinks they are detrimental to his goals, he can’t really complain about people who think his actions are detrimental to their goals without coming of as a self-absorbed hypocrite.

      • erikthebassist says:

        So wait a minute, am I correct in restating your argument thusly: We don’t want more atheists and skeptics to speak up socially because that will just bring more religious moderates out of the wood work to counter act them?

        I was a little bit taken aback by PZ’s attack on Ray Kurzweill as well, but that’s because I was, until RW’s most recent comments, somewhat smitten with the whole trans-humanist movement, if even only a little.

        It was actually PZ’s rabid but logical attack on RW’s thesis that shook me out of it and brought me to my senses. I hadn’t realized until then just how unscientific the trans-humanist movement had become. I had a similar experience after reading a couple of viscous attacks by Lee Smolin and others on string theory. Until then, the moderate, quiet criticism of string theory was easy to ignore. “Well, there’s some dissent, but it’s not very animated, they must not be too convinced it’s a waste of time.” People equate passion with certitude, and they equate certitude with being right.

        I also don’t see how you think skeptics are in danger of being pre-labelled as dicks. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people don’t even know that skeptics exist, much less have a pre-determined notion of their personality traits.

        My point is that atheists, at least in the US, are a marginalized minority. Poll after poll shows that we are among the least trusted and most reviled groups in America. We hardly run the risk of being hated any more than we already are. What we need instead is for more atheists to assert themselves, not fewer.

        As Dawkins points out, there are actually more people who call themselves non-religious than there are Jews, or blacks, or any other minority group, but we have exactly zero political power. Why do you think that is? I think it’s because our natural predisposition is exactly the opposite of what Phil claims it is. I think it’s because we’re generally quiet about our views in social situations, afraid to come out lest we lose friends or family over our atheism.

        By pushing the envelope, Dawkins, PZ and the rest make it easier for the rest of us to stand up and be counted. Yeah, I tell people I’m not THAT militant atheist guy. I tell them that Dawkins is harsh, over the top, because it makes them more comfortable talking to me about these things.

        Dawkins and PZ are lightening rods. I can point to them and call myself a moderate in comparison. It makes my conversations 100 times easier.

      • erikthebassist says:

        ftr, I know that Phil isn’t making the argument that we shouldn’t be passionate or animated. I know the difference between a dick and a nice person. I just think being a dick has it’s uses, there’s room for all approaches, and Phil’s speech was a giant waste of time, as was this entire debate, because at the end of the day, it’s not going to change anything. But it does have the potential to further divide an already splintered group. That’s the last thing we need right now.

        Some leader.

      • NightHiker says:

        “So wait a minute, am I correct in restating your argument thusly: We don’t want more atheists and skeptics to speak up socially because that will just bring more religious moderates out of the wood work to counter act them?”

        Not at all. Or only if you equate “speaking up” with “being a dick”. My point is that we should pay more attention to the positive ways of making people think about their world views. We have, relatively speaking, little resources, be it financial, political or even “social”, so to speak.

        The core of the issue, to me, is how to get the best result possible from such resources. First, the way I see it, and it obviously can be countered with arguments, skeptics spend much of those resources with things that should not be our primary focus, something a minority cannot afford to do. Like campaigning against religious symbols in public places, for example: of course, secular countries should not have space for religious symbols in courts or other public buildings, but attacking the symbols themselves is trying to get rid of just the symptom of something much deeper, while maybe even aggravating the cause. In the end, whether such campaigns are successful or not, they do not make religious people think more critically or be more favorable to the skeptic movement, or change their views or values that are already a part of that mindset, i.e. be less prejudiced. On the other hand, if people actually start to think more critically in their every day lives, I couldn’t care less if there were still religious symbols in public places. The same goes for ad campaigns advertising atheism. In other words, like I said before, we pay to much attention to the vague, umbrella like concept of “religion”, and too little to the actual things that make a difference on our everyday lives.

        So I’m not talking about converting religious people to the “skeptics” side, first because I don’t think there is such dichotomy: religious persons can be more skeptical while remaining religious. Sure, we can argue that it makes them intellectually dishonest, at least to themselves, but that’s a fact of life: we all have our unsubstantiated beliefs, whether we’d like to admit it or not – beliefs that are apparently reasonable can turn to be unsubstantiated too. What I care about is to convince a religious person to adopt a more reasonable stance in regard to specific topics, like, for example, anything related to individual rights. When I argue about the legalization for abortion or same-sex marriage, for example, I do my best to leave religion out of the way. If this was not getting already too big a comment, I would give you examples of that (how I was able to change someone’s mind in regard to something that they were prejudiced against because of their religious education). Maybe later.

        To end, in regard to the Kurzweil issue, that’s the thing: PZ’s arguments were already more than enough – the dickish part of the post could only detract from them. Calling Kurzweil an idiot or “Chopraic” won’t make his arguments worse. So why do it? The only reason I can find is personal gratification and looking for peer reinforcement. And I guess that’s the line that separates what I’m calling being a dick with being just assertive. Good arguments don’t need to include ridicule to be effective, and many times it makes them less effective.

      • Jackweline says:

        Again, exactly on the nail there NightHiker

  35. Brian M says:

    You seem to be giving Phil a lot of credit. ” Of course he knows … “. Does he? Phil was very vague with what he meant by “be a dick”. What qualifies one as a “dick”? Is it mockery? Or ad-hominem?

    Either Phil is attacking a straw man, or he is just trying to start up some controversy (he has a TV show soon, afterall), or he really thinks basic, non-childish ridicule is bad.

    Nobody is legitimately using ad-hominems (at least, not anyone being taken seriously). But claiming that using ridicule is a bad tactic is just absurd. If you stake your flag on a position, no matter what happens, you will generally stick to your position. If you silently agree, but don’t stake a flag, and someone gets shredded intellectually (not a “neener neener” argument that nobody uses), then you won’t want to be in that pit of ridicule either. That leaves you with agreeing, or using a better argument.

    I don’t know if you have ever seen any of the old “Kent Hovind” debates. I remember seeing one where he more or less demolished Shermer (yea, wtf). He used ridicule and won. They all use this type of argument. “Silly evolutionists, cannot answer my questions!”. We can counter and win, but the Gish Gallop is a hard tactic to counter. That type of ridicule works, demonstrably.

    One on one, yea, calling someone an idiot is a bad idea, but nobody does that. If they do, cite examples. Otherwise we will take your argument as an attack against a straw man.

    • NightHiker says:

      “We can counter and win, but the Gish Gallop is a hard tactic to counter. That type of ridicule works, demonstrably.”

      The problem is that it works only with the people that are already on your side. Creationists can use ridicule because most people are already potentially on their side. If you try to ridicule the person who most people already agrees with, you will only come off as a dick to that majority. Is it fair? Probably not – but aren’t we after all the first ones to acknowledge the Universe is not a fair place?

      • Tyro says:

        Certainly hard core Creationists are immune but what about the undecideds, YECs with doubts, and mushy Christians would not be receptive? Many people have said how exposing the ridiculous aspects of their beliefs has led to questions, doubt and eventually change. There are many people who haven’t thought deeply about these issues and finding their beliefs the subject to laughter will provoke a reaction in most people.

      • Brian M says:

        Exactly. Which is why the “have you changed your belief in something after being called an idiot” is such a wrong argument. I have changed my beliefs because some third party got openly ridiculed. That target won’t change no matter how nice we are, but a third party will be forced to think. Especially since wit is often seen as a sign of intelligence, and we all want to side with the smarter people.

      • NightHiker says:

        “I have changed my beliefs because some third party got openly ridiculed.”

        This is also the wrong argument, from anecdotal evidence. The proper question to ask is this: “how likely is that any person will look at your arguments in a negative manner if you start by calling them idiots?” I would say very likely. It doesn’t mean it’s impossible – just that it will be harder. If you are talking to someone, directly or indirectly, who is capable of understand the arguments implied in the ridicule, you won’t need the ridicule, and if they don’t, they’ll still see the ridicule.

      • NightHiker says:

        “There are many people who haven’t thought deeply about these issues and finding their beliefs the subject to laughter will provoke a reaction in most people.”

        That it will provoke a reaction is certain. But is it the reaction we want? I still advance the idea that people here are ignoring established facts about human psychology, while “lying con-artists” win people over because they don’t.

        It’s a given the skeptics’ work is much harder, because our brains are naturally susceptible to the con-artists discourse – we don’t even always “need” them, we con ourselves most of the time if left alone.

        The point is that we put too much focus on religion, when it might be more efficient to take the focus away from it and concentrate on the specific tasks at hand. We complain about how creationists, for example, think that undermining the other side gives their own any credence automatically – but them we go on and do the same with them? We don’t need to do that – we need to educate whenever possible, and stop mentioning religion all the time – it’s a strategy I call “covert education” – talk to people about how something would be good, or right, from an angle they would not feel threatened by, until it’s too late and the seed is already planted. If you bring up religion right at the beginning they will be emotionally compelled to disagree and it will be an uphill walk from the start.

      • NightHiker says:

        Also, another thing that seems to be happening is that people are equating humor to ridicule. I wholeheartedly agree humor is a powerful tool, and ridicule is part of it, but not the only way to bring humor into the equation. You can make people laugh at themselves without making them feel like you’re ridiculing them.

  36. Does anyone else think it is remarkable how relatively civil this whole discussion has been? I think it speaks very well to our community of many voices.

    Consider how a similar discussion in some YEC/ID blog would be going by now. Well, that is assuming the dissenting viewpoints hadn’t all been purged by the blog moderator.

  37. TurboFool says:

    Honestly, the more I read, the more I think we all essentially agree with one another, but are now merely arguing over whether or not the examples of satire/sarcasm/etc. were implied in Phil’s speech and what that means. We seem to be on the same page that these elements are valuable and should be protected, when used properly, but some feel Phil failed to give them credit, while others feel we can safely assume he felt that way. But each person in their own way seems to be restating these same viewpoints, and then arguing their viewpoint to another person who is saying the exact same thing, just with mild variations on the theme.

    In a nut shell: Treating another human being in a vile way will not sway them or make you look good, but using attitude, anger, sarcasm, humor, and ridicule can be incredibly valuable against ideas, beliefs, and people we can never turn who still may have the ear of fence-sitters, and it can be extremely entertaining to watch people who are especially skilled at it do so.

    Anyone disagree with this basic assessment? And if no, are we ready to move on?

    • Deen says:

      But if we all agree on this, why did Phil Plait feel that we all needed a lecture?

      • TurboFool says:

        Well, that’s unfortunately the problem. As I noted earlier in a private conversation, I think Phil merely failed to define the line between the two sides of this, or even really hint that the line was there. That leaves it up to me to figure out what he meant and where the line is. And as I was already doing that, his speech becomes pointless. But maybe just for me. Maybe there were others who really didn’t realize there was a line and that they had to pay attention to it. Maybe. Right? There had to be…

        Seriously, I feel the need to constantly qualify that I’m extremely fond of Dr. Plait, and I was defending him up and down to Ashley during and after his speech, as I think he’s one of the most motivational speakers IN skepticism, and he’s the perfect example of passion and excitement that we all need. I just personally think this speech failed to incite that, and failed to include his normal level of attention to detail or effectiveness. There was a point, it wasn’t wrong, but it didn’t manage (IMHO) to fully encompass the argument and left some people unsure if their valuable methods were under attack or being ignored.

      • Because how we think we should behave and how we actually behave are very rarely the same thing.

        And apparently the JREF Forums are hellacious.

    • Mike McRae says:

      Turbofool – Disagree? Yep. Sure do:

      I think this is pretty much one of the sticking points here – your claim is an assertion based only on anecdote and assumption. The small amount of research on the matter that exists leans the other way; with some exceptions of matching tone, aggressive language can make your argument seem less effective.

  38. Mike McRae says:

    The rhetoric surrounding this topic continues to amaze me. While I agree Phil’s speech was light on good definitions and supporting evidence (I can see why he chose to frame his talk as he did, however, and feel he was damned either way given the current research on communication and framing), the criticisms have been pathetic in their appeal to personal anecdotes, emotions and flat out logical fallacies.

    So for the case of simplicity and those who don’t feel inclined to read more than they need, I’ll summarise the situation as I see it.

    Being a dick: Yes, it’s subjective and ‘I know it when I see it’. One person’s dick is another’s freedom fighter. So, to move past pedantry, we’ll give a simple, objective definition. Being a dick means communicating in a fashion that attempts to motivate another through emotions intended to make them feel negative about their position. Obviously there will always be situations where any form of criticism will be viewed as dickish, whether through inappropriate framing, context or just bad timing. Sometimes any form of contrary opinions will make some people feel bad and seem ‘dickish’. Ce la vie. There is always a risk of that. However, while that might not be helped, intentional emotional manipulation can be. Simply put, wanting to change minds – whether theirs or a bystander’s – by making somebody feel bad is for communication purposes ‘being a dick’.

    Rationalists sing the praises of using logic and reason to make decisions, and lament how society often fails in this regard. What is astonishing are those who then feel a remedy to this deficit is to then use emotional manipulation to change minds, believing it will promote good thinking.

    Rather than promote good thinking, it’s promoting a conclusion they feel all should share and using emotions to drive it home. It’s no different to how religion works – forgo the process of forming a conclusion in order to provide one already made. People like PZ seem to take immense pride in this form of communication, and his comment above serves as good evidence of this. Entertaining, sure, but in the end there’s no evidence that it’s done anything more than make atheists feel smug about themselves.

    Research into aggressive communication shows it does seem to have a positive effect if you already share the same values as those dishing out the ridicule. It reduces the desire to discuss, removes black sheep from the social group and consolidates the group’s values. Hence it seems to do a great job to those on the inside. And if this is the purpose of the outreach, then no argument. Pat yourself on the back and have a beer as a reward. As such, it can be used successfully to bully people in a position of authority or influence to act in accordance with your beliefs.

    Yet when it comes to the outreach and promotion of critical thinking, aggressive language is not only ineffective, it is inhibitory and polarises the existing values to make people only less inclined to want to examine their position. Hence by being a dick, it makes it harder for others to communicate the values you so dearly wish the rest of society would hold.

    The quick-fire response of the likes of PZ and Dawkins is to claim they’re not trying to reach those who hold ridiculous beliefs, but those on the sidelines. And they have plenty of anecdotal evidence to say this works. Of course. Unfortunately the research doesn’t really back them up on this. While there are always going to be the outliers, most people view arguments presented in this fashion as lacking in substance. So the few handshakes they get is overshadowed by the invisible numbers of those who shake their head and walk away. Sounds a little like how alternative medicine works.

    Now, it’s possible there are some loopholes here, as there is little research specific to grassroots skepticism, in this specific regard. I find it unlikely that we could have special pleading for skeptical outreach, as I don’t see it having novel variables, but I’d be ecstatic if there was a field of research to engage in. There isn’t. Instead there are anecdotes, post-hoc generalisations and a lot of wishful thinking.

    Once again, thanks to Loxton for in the very least realising that communication deserves research to support its claims like any other field. The fact there is discussion is promising that maybe skeptics will do more than just hope they’re being effective, but will put their research money where their mouth is.

    • Deen says:

      What is astonishing are those who then feel a remedy to this deficit is to then use emotional manipulation to change minds, believing it will promote good thinking.

      “Emotional manipulation”? Nice framing. Let me give it a try too: Isn’t being nice to someone, making them feel good about themselves, even though you secretly think they’re being idiots, a form of emotional manipulation as well?

      Rather than promote good thinking, it’s promoting a conclusion they feel all should share and using emotions to drive it home. It’s no different to how religion works – forgo the process of forming a conclusion in order to provide one already made.

      Who does this? Who uses mockery (and maybe even an insult or two) without also laying out all the arguments to support their low opinion of their opponent? I don’t think that’s common at all.

      • Mike McRae says:

        I never said being nice and making them feel good should the prime objective in promoting a conclusion either. I feel the primary focus should be on promoting the thinking values and not selling a conclusion at all.

        If somebody adopts your belief either because you were nice or because you’re an asshole, and not because they adopted your values and thinking skills, it runs against the very principles of being rational in the first place. You want to compete with religion by using religion’s tools, go for it. But I think you’ll lose.

        Now, I agree it’s impossible to remove emotions from the situation and also believe emotions are essential to the process. There is a subtle difference between being likeable and encouraging critical thinking values and selling a conclusion by emotionally manipulating somebody. I suspect there are rationalists who fail to see the difference, sadly, however it is a significant one. Getting it right can mean the difference between persuading people to practice good thinking (including the fence sitters) and further polarising their epistemological values.

        On your second point, well, I fail to see the connection. So, you lay out the step-by-step points on how you arrived at your conclusion, tell somebody they’re wrong, throw in an insult or two, and think that by spelling out your thinking process it is promoting good thinking? Really?

        I stand by my post.

      • Deen says:

        Being likable to someone you actually despise (say an anti-vaccine loon who keeps repeating the same lies over and over again) in order to get your message across is no less emotional manipulation than using strong language. It’s dishonest too. Sure, it may be more effective than showing contempt, but calling the approach you don’t agree with “emotional manipulation” is just dishonest rhetoric.

        So, you lay out the step-by-step points on how you arrived at your conclusion, tell somebody they’re wrong, throw in an insult or two, and think that by spelling out your thinking process it is promoting good thinking?

        In a way, yes. It may not work on everyone, I’m quite willing to admit that, but you’re essentially saying “your ideas don’t deserve respect, and here’s why.” It even teaches the notion that not all ideas deserve respect, something that would be hard to get across if you’re always being carefully respectful to even the most bonkers ideas.

      • Mike McRae says:

        Who said you had to be likeable to somebody you despise? You seem to be bent on creating a lot of strawmen to attack here, if not flat-out false dichotomies.

        In fact, if you despise somebody, who’s to say there is any need to communicate directly to them at all? I find it easier to ignore the people I despise and focus on promoting good thinking skills in others in order to make it impossible for the misinformation to take seed. Why waste time and resources on minds that lack the epistemology to think critically about their claims when success is possible elsewhere?

        On your second point; claims require evidence beyond assertion of being true. I’d have thought it be one value most here could agree upon. I never said anything about whether an unsupported claim deserved respect or not. I believe all people deserve respect when it comes to their right to make a claim, but not all claims are equally valid.

    • Is the research you’re referring to just the one thing cited in this blog post? Because it’s just one study, and a fairly specific one at that, and one that seems to say if receiving verbal aggression, people think you’re making better arguments if you return the verbal aggression. As long as you didn’t start it. Are there more studies more conclusively supporting the points you’re making?

      And while I appreciate you defining dick, it doesn’t change the fact that Phil Plait did not.

      I must also disagree with the idea that emotion belongs nowhere in a discussion, if for no other reason than humans are far more emotional than they are rational. It is very difficult to remove all emotional appeal out of an argument in the first place, but even if you could it would undermine your argument. There are good, sound emotional arguments to be made and I don’t think all appeal to emotion is strictly manipulative. It is emotional to say that people who refuse medical care for their children for religious reasons might kill them, but it’s accurate. That is horrifying for emotional reasons, not just rational reasons.

      And even though anecdotes are not studies and don’t carry as much weight, they are not fully dismissible, particularly when the point is that their approach works for some people. PZ gets regular emails saying that his blog has helped people become more questioning of religion and their personal beliefs. That may not mean his approach is the only or the best way, but it’s obviously something that has worked for some people. Movements need firebrands and diplomats.

      • Mike McRae says:

        The blog post Daniel linked to has a couple of studies. However, as I state in the post, the aim is not to provide categorical proof positive, but to say the thin amount of evidence on the subject leans towards avoiding aggressive language.

        As I said there and say above – I won’t pretend it’s the final word on the matter, and believe there is a gap that needs to be filled with research. The study you cited does indeed indicate meeting aggression with aggression in discussions can be more persuasive. And, honestly, if that was argued as a goal, I’d happily concede it. I’m not so much out for a world of hugs and smiles, but rather effective skeptical communication that really worked at promoting good thinking skills. Unfortunately most times I seek evidence on some form of skeptical outreach succeeding, the responses are little more than blind assertions.

        I agree that emotions can’t be removed from discussions. That’s not my point (and I kind of address that above). And I agree that even claims phrased in the best ways can have emotional connotations that are perceived as, well, dickish. Yet again, there is a difference between emotionally manipulating people into adopting your views and being aware of the emotional effect your terms have on a discussion.

        As for your final term, that is true. And nobody says there aren’t exceptions. The question is not ‘can we find examples of ridicule working as hoped’, however, but ‘given limited resources and the possibility of conflicting outreach methods, which ones are the most effective at promoting good thinking?’.

      • I like the idea of putting research into it, I think that’s a very useful thing to do, but also think to a large extent people need to be able to be themselves. The reason people are drawn to the movement is because it, at least partially, defines who they are. How they interact with the world is deeply personal, not just an attempt at trying to convert other people. I certainly know I am guilty of this on my own blog — I spend a lot of time trying to grapple with issues, not just making pronouncements or trying to convince other people. Even when I’m writing what are essentially opinion pieces, they are as much for me as they are for anyone reading them.

        If we’re talking about rhetoric and people giving speeches and writing books, then yes, I do think that those can fall under the purview of “what is the goal of skepticism and does this work”, but I don’t think that personal interactions are quite that cleanly defined, and I’m tempted to put blogging more under that personal category.

      • Mike McRae says:

        I think we’re talking about two different things, in which case. One is skeptical outreach – communicating with others in an effort to promote a particular epistemology. This is what I support, as I find it hard to wish things were different without doing my best to make it so. I happen to think people should be empowered with the skills to think rationally, and feel there should be processes in place that promote this value. You can, of course, tell me I’m wrong (the beauty of values is that they aren’t objective, so we can just disagree over that).

        The other is community building. It cares less about how people come across their values or beliefs, just that they desire a social connection with others. As you put it, it defines them and sharing this with others is a positive experience.

        I also agree some people engage in public communication to just give voice to their inner discussion. I admit that isn’t one I considered in my blog post, and although it doesn’t change the fundamental conclusion I make, it is an interesting one that is more or less self-evidential. i.e., if that’s your goal, then it’s easy to see if it’s successful.

        Multiple goals within a community don’t have to be mutually exclusive, of course. But they can be. The actions of the community in its effort to feel positive about itself can risk making it difficult for others to adopt their values. Sharing your inner angst might make for great therapy, but it could come at the cost of creating conflict with the ideals of others.

        I completely agree there are distinct goals at work in the skeptical community and we can’t afford to confuse or conflate them. Unlike what many presume to be true, I don’t believe ‘it takes all methods to achieve all goals’. I think the blind scattergun approach is an assertion that lacks merit. Instead discussions such as these need to be had to evaluate the methods being used for their pros and cons, basing it on as best evidence as we can muster rather than presumptions and wishful thinking.

      • scribe999 says:

        I wonder if all everyone is actually saying is “You can argue rationally, you can ARGUE (ie, actually present a position and defend it) like a dick…just don’t be a dick for dickishness sake.” I don’t know. From the evidence that some people have been citing here, and other studies I admittedly only perused online, it would appear NEITHER approach would work on the “misinformed”. The research does seem thin, but there is stuff addressing misinformation with facts that show those who are most misinformed will dig in their heals when presented with contrary evidence regardless of tone (Journal of Politics, Kuklinski, et. al, 2000), and when similar cohorts were “tricked” in additional research (they were presented with two questions, estimate the amount of welfare spending in the US and then estimate the desired amount of welfare spending), when it was revealed that their responses were far higher than the ACTUAL spending, their preferences tended to change. The paper suggests “If it is presented in away that ‘hits them between the eyes’–by drawing attention to its policy relevance and explicitly correcting misperceptions–such information can have a substantial effect”. I suppose you might classify this as emotional manipulation. Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler of the Univ. of Mich. state “The backfire effects that we found seem to provide further support for the growing literature showing that citizens engage in ‘motivated reasoning.’ While our experiments focused on assessing the effectiveness of corrections, the results show that direct factual contradictions can actually strengthen ideologically grounded factual beliefs – an empirical finding with important theoretical implications.” Nyhan and Reifler note another study: “In addition, Bullock (2007) conducted a series of experiments examining the effects of false information in contemporary political debates. The experiments employed the belief perseverance paradigm from psychology (c.f. Ross and Lepper 1980) in which treatment group is presented with a factual claim that is subsequently discredited. The beliefs and attitudes of the treatment group are then compared with a control group that was not exposed to the false information. All three experiments found that treated subjects differed significantly from controls (i.e. showed evidence of belief perseverance) and that they perversely became more confident in their beliefs. In addition, two experiments concerning events in contemporary politics demonstrated that exposure to
        the discredited information pushed party identifiers in opposing (partisan) directions.” While the studies cited above, and others I’ve read, tend to focus on credibility and perception of presenters, they tend not to actually describe any change in motivated reasoning and belief perseverance. Is there a possibility that this would require a new paradigm rather than this back and forth?

      • scribe999 says:

        by “studies cited above” I meant those described in the blog post itself.

      • ptah says:

        If you provide links I will love you for ever.

      • Mike McRae says:

        “From the evidence that some people have been citing here, and other studies I admittedly only perused online, it would appear NEITHER approach would work on the “misinformed”.”

        Correct, however it’s not quite so simple as that. Firstly, it depends on the misinformation. Simple fact-corrections do indeed run the risk of paradoxically reinforcing the error rather than fixing it, according to some studies. For most, if the misinformation arises due to conflicting epistemologies, then simply showing them they’re wrong won’t do anything, regardless of how nice you are.

        Second of all, this isn’t a dichotomy. The converse of ‘being a dick is problematic’ isn’t necessarily ‘not being a dick will ensure success’. It’s more a matter of finding the most effective strategies to achieve one’s goal.

        The backfire effect is an interesting one. I wouldn’t call it emotional reasoning at all – it’s more a symptom of communal reinforcement, if my memory serves me correctly. Ironically, even here there is the assumption that observations must exist that support personal views, as why else would so many people think it? While it’s unclear what causes the effect, there’s some thought that it forces dissonance between communal reinforcement and the conclusion being logical. I suspect it would work well with some forms of epistemology, but identifying where it would work and where it would fail would be a good field for skeptics to look into.

        All said, what you’ve put forward is precisely the level of debate that would should expect of skeptics, and it’s made me think there’s some hope yet. Genuine attempts to scientifically understand how people think and a discussion on how which research is relevant or valid is far better than 90% of what has been written.

      • scribe999 says:

        Oh, the links I left out:

        I think the citations in the first link provide some places to follow up if anyone has the inclination.

    • Bob says:

      You seem to have a fetish for research and tend to brush off or demonize those that don’t meet your standard of having ‘data.’ Perhaps you should just communicate your way and leave others to communicate in theirs without the unnecessarily verbose “you’re doing it wrong” rhetoric.

      As I’ve mentioned before, it is by no means clear that your preferred research gives (or can give) more than very general information due to the contrived nature of experiments compared to an individual’s specific interactions with others. Nothing against research & hard data in general, but I don’t see the utility in it in this case. There are simply too many variables to control & so little existing strong theory to build upon to convince me it’s worth spending much more time & effort on.

      You obviously feel differently; that’s cool. We all have different goals, values & agenda. What’s not cool is claiming your opponents have no data when they disagree with you then immediately tarring them as bad actors based on your own data-free assertions. To wit:

      “So the few handshakes they get is overshadowed by the invisible numbers of those who shake their head and walk away. Sounds a little like how alternative medicine works.”

      Certainly the continued popularity of Dawkins’ lectures, books, TV appearances, &c. can be discounted, since only the Silent Majority of departing head-shakers are attending, reading, watching. But only someone like a homeopath or a Creationist would state that so boldly without four places of accuracy, error bars, and citations to a half-dozen articles in high-impact journals.

      To reiterate my constructive suggestion at the outset of all this: perhaps you should spend the time finding out what works & do that. It’s difficult, I know, but claiming you know what doesn’t work for other people and telling them to stop is obviously not working, for you or for anyone else.

      • Mike McRae says:

        You know, this sounds about as reasonable as what one might expect from somebody defending paranormal or pseudoscientific explanations. Pushed for evidence, there are cries of ‘each to their own’ and accusations of an over-reliance on evidence. Anecdotes are also good enough there, too.

        Unfortunately, this is a skeptic blog, where people usually value a need for such ‘data’. I assume your special pleading is as consistent for those who makes spurious claims on homeopathy, or ghost-sightings?

        I expect anybody who makes a claim to back it up. If it’s said that ridicule works and that communication takes all types, I demand to see more than personal stories and post-hoc explanations as much as I would if the claim was about aliens, clairvoyance or any other belief.

      • NightHiker says:


        Unfortunately, it has been my experience while frequenting skeptic blogs that the skeptics’ willingness to accept evidence contrary to their established thoughts in general is not much bigger than those who subscribe to some supernatural or paranormal phenomenon, whatever it is.

        The problem is likely the fact that while they differ in their intellectual stance on the world, they still have in common the emotional circuits in their brain.

        I said “them”, but I obviously include myself there – maybe the difference is I know we skeptics are as capable of fooling ourselves as the “believers”, with the difference that we’re able to come up with better excuses for doing so, while the majority of self described skeptics seem to think they’re immune to such trap.

      • Bob says:

        Again with that guilt-by-association technique. Cheap shot, really. Homeopathy, ghost-sightings, paranormal – why don’t you sack up and drop a real ad hominem instead of this weak baiting? Or are thinly-veiled insults part of being “nice”?

        As I’ve mentioned earlier, I believe your demand for ‘hard data’ or specificity is misplaced. I simply don’t believe such contrived or finely-controlled research is applicable in the general case, I’ve clearly stated why (which you have not bothered to refute) and if you claim that it is, feel free to back that up. I can be convinced but I am not doing your homework for you.

        And sorry, this is not special pleading; some experiments however well-conducted cannot answer the questions posed by design. You’re not going to find out much about Bose-Einstein condensates looking in your freezer and by the same token the experimental setup you need to investigate a Bose-Einstein condensate is unlikely to tell you the best way to keep frozen peas edible.

        It would be enough if the frozen pea researchers and the Bose-Einstein condensate researchers would get on with their respective research. But when one tells the other they’re doing it wrong, either not recognizing or ignoring the differences in goals, methodology, scope, tools, etc., there’s a problem.

        Understand that we have different goals and values, most likely overlapping but not perfectly aligned. You obviously have memorized your list of logical fallacies, laughable pseudoscience communities, and rhetorical techniques. All well and good; put them to use. Engaging in a dick-swinging contest with other skeptics is perhaps not as profitable as you might believe.

        But that’s just my opinion; do what thou wilt and I shall do the same and perhaps we’ll manage to avoid putting too many knives in each other’s backs.

      • Mike McRae says:

        It’s not guilt by association at all, however you wish to dismiss it by saying so. It is straight out and obvious hypocrisy.

        Skeptics will typically (and rightfully) point out to advocates of homeopathy why anecdotes make for poor evidence. They’ll (and again, rightfully so) point out how confirmation bias can slip in, or how personal accounts are rarely controlled for certain variables. If somebody says homeopathy can’t hurt, skeptics will often point out the flaws in such reasoning by stating how unsupported beliefs can lead people to overlook methods that might actually do some good. Typically CAM supporters will then retire by asking to agree to disagree…a sign that discussing the merits of science falls on deaf ears, given their differing epistemology.

        Yet that same skeptical reasoning goes out the window when it comes to methods of communication. Placebo justifications seem all the rage. Hence it’s not merely a vague association – here we have a form of reasoning that is criticised when it comes to pseudoscientific beliefs yet actively employed when it comes to something certain skeptics wish to be true.

        On your blanket dismissal of any form of research that could possibly provide a better insight into such a field than blind assertion and anecdotes, it’s no different to saying science simply doesn’t have the tools to deal with the paranormal, therefore anecdotes and assertions are just as good. That’s not well poisoning or guilt by association – it’s once again the exact same flawed thinking. I’m quite certain you’d turn to a psychological explanation over blind assertions and anecdotes when it came to explanations of how psychics operate.

        As for your final plea, it’s easily the saddest part of your response. It amounts to nothing more than ‘I don’t want to discuss the evidence – let’s just agree to believe in whatever we want to do things our own way’. This very request flies against skeptical outreach, which endeavours to promote values in looking critically at the way people make decisions. If that’s how some skeptics role model critical thinking, then skepticism becomes more about teaching people what to think than how to think.

      • Jason Smith says:

        I wonder if you’ve noticed a certain irony in a couple of your posts. Re-read this particular one, for instance, and weigh it against what your supposed message is. Just a suggestion.

    • Jackweline says:

      That’s the best comment I’ve ever seen on this issue. Well done, you define reasonable critera for ‘being dickish’ and then explain why it’s not consistent for rationalists to debase themselves with this kind of behaviour, even if they believe it will work.

  39. MaikU says:

    “Skepticism can’t tell us what’s morally right”

    Wrong. Skepticism and rational thinking is a key to the objective morality.

  40. EvilHick says:

    You catch more flies with honey than vinegar?

  41. Archie Pittman says:

    The content of the article has been torn apart by other commenters, and I will not dwell on it, but I feel an important point hasn’t been sufficiently stressed yet.
    So, at the risk of being a penis… you could have said all you wanted to say in half the text.

    • Jackweline says:

      Lol. ‘Torn apart’. I guess we know what your predetermined conclusion was here. And your ‘contribution’ is, “You could have said that quicker”.


  42. An excellent quote from a religious source, originally in the context of evangelism:

    Receptivity without confrontation leads to a bland neutrality that serves nobody. Confrontation without receptivity leads to an oppressive aggression which hurts everybody.” — Henri J M Nouwen.

  43. steelsheen11b says:

    After listening to DBAD and reading through Mr. Loxton’s post and the comments about his article I’m still at a lost as to why BOTH methods aren’t embraced? What is the problem?

    in assaulting an objective if you use a two pronged attack it.s called an enveloping movement. Why not use the be nice, be helpful, cite the source erudition prong along with the aggressive direct in your face(in a non-hostile way unless warrented) method. Both have their strength and weakness but both both play to the strengths of the person using them.

    • Deen says:

      Actually, that’s what opponents of the “Don’t be a dick” crowd have been saying all along. It’s the “Don’t be a dick” people who say that their way is simply the best and the offensive approach should be abandoned.

      • Jackweline says:

        No it isn’t. That’s the opposite of what’s going on. Nearly all the advocates of “Don’t be a dick” have said that in some situations being a dick might get through to some people. Many of them have admitted that sometimes, shock horror, they’re a bit of a dick. Can you point to a single post PZ has made where he has politely and respectfully shown how someone he strongly disagrees with is wrong?


  44. G Money says:

    It makes me sad to see my skeptical parents fighting like this. Please kiss and make up before I’m permanently scarred.

  45. Ivan says:

    My view:
    Some people get such an emotional boost out of being dicks that they deliberately (though maybe unconsiously) misunterstand Phil Plait and make up rationalisations to explain their feelings/behaviour.

    DBAD can only reach people who haven’t been a dick too often.

  46. Gretchen says:

    I’ve been contemplating exactly what “being a dick” means to me. And you know, I actually managed to come up with something specific– calling people names when they don’t deserve it. The key elements of that are 1) people, who 2) don’t deserve it. I think sometimes they do deserve it, and that beliefs and practices can safely be denounced stridently without insulting those who hold/perform them.

    What’s an example of dickishness, though? Well, saying that religious people are morons would be a good one. It’s clearly false, and therefore undeserved– there are many highly intelligent religious people out there, there always have been, and there very likely always will be. Saying that people who don’t share your political beliefs are stupid or evil would be another example. Certainly there are stupid/evil people who have stupid/evil political or religious beliefs, but labeling them as such simply because they don’t match your position to the letter? Dickish.

    If it’s possible for reasonable, good people to reach a conclusion that you don’t share, and you insist that they are stupid or evil (or synonyms for such) for not sharing it, you’re a dick. You’re not “just telling it like it is,” because that’s not how it is, and you’re not helping anything but your own smug ego and those of other dicks. And however right a person might be on other topics, it’s hard to respect them if they act like that.

    • Somite says:

      But who is doing this? I have not encountered this behavior. Certainly not so widespread that it requires a general call to the skeptic community to “Not be a Dick”.

      • Gretchen says:

        I have seen this sort of thing on Twitter and on atheist and skeptical forums, chat rooms, and blogs probably millions of times, and I am quite sure you have as well.

      • scribe999 says:

        Just out of curiosity…is this a campaign to stop Internet trolls? Because f course, I’d love to get rid of all the Internet trolls (of any type), but I find that telling THEM to stop being dicks is unlikely to accomplish anything.

  47. KennyJC says:

    This is getting old very fast. These nicey nice skeptics can do what they want and get nowhere fast. I will be applying skepticism equally to ALL nonsense claims, even *gasp* religion. My tone will be consistent for each topic whether I’m talking to my mother or or some random person on the internet.

  48. Dame_en_noir says:

    The ultimate question many have asked, and it hasn`t been answered yet : Is this approach (been a dick) really so counterproductive? I know there are countless anecdotes outhere, but I want to ask in the simplest terms: Are there polls showing a growing dislike of skeptics, the skeptic movement, the atheist or the “New” atheist? Is there any data showing decrasing numbers of people reaching out or joining the “skeptical movement” because of the tone, name calling, or use of sarcasm in the discourse? Does a public backlash exist? Any study at all? Bueller?

    • Mike McRae says:

      That is, of course, the big question. It is constantly put forward that ‘it takes all types’ and that aggressive communication has its place, but the discussion either grows quiet when these points are critically evaluated or is addressed with personal anecdotes.

      Ultimately, we don’t really know if it is counter productive. For all of the anecdotes that says it works well, there are those that say it inhibits communication on certain topics. The problem is that the surrounding literature on impression management and public outreach indicates there are problems with an approach that uses ridicule and aggressive language to communicate.

      IMO, the key issue here is not so much that there are ‘dicks’, but that people who otherwise demand good evidence are justifying their use of ridicule with the zeal (and thinking pattern) of the most adamant ‘woo’ while flippantly dismissing the question of whether or not it might be problematic. Most of the comments here are given with great passion, but amount to baseless assertions. Communication is treated as a pot-luck, take-your-best-shot, make-it-up-as-you-go-along affair, where anything and everything is equally likely to work.

      When the point of communication method was first raised, you’d think skeptics would be the first to commission evaluations and do some homework, asking experts in the field or engaging evaluation committees to find evidence that goals were actually being achieved. Instead, it seems that wild guesses, assumptions, assertions and anecdotes are good enough for skeptics when it comes to those things they already presume to be true.

      • NightHiker says:

        Considering the lack of well reasoned arguments even from the most prominent of the “dickish” school I would volunteer that most of those who defend the “being a dick” stance are that way because of personal preference first, and goals a distant second, if at all. If they would at least be honest and say: “I like being a dick, damn the results”, I would respect that more – but when they try to justify it with anecdotes and emotional appeal it becomes hard to relate.

        I used to be more of a dick, and still exercise my ridicule muscles from time to time, but I admit I use it to destabilize the adversary when I’m frustrated that rational arguments don’t get through their thick skulls, and not because I think it will make him or her, or anyone watching, change their minds.

    • Pieter B says:

      The Woman In Black asks “I know there are countless anecdotes outhere, but I want to ask in the simplest terms: . . . Any study at all? Bueller?”

      Since it’s behind a paywall I cannot speak to the methodology or the sample size, but Daniel did link to one study in the original post:

  49. Max says:

    Ticktock rightly commented that “Turns out sarcasm really does make you seem like a dick,” in response to PZ.
    By definition, sarcasm is the use of irony to mock or convey contempt. I try to eliminate all traces of sarcasm in my official correspondence, and sometimes even ask a friend to read it and comment on the tone. Studies show that people are bad at picking up your tone from text, but if they do pick up the sarcasm, they’re likely to respond to contempt with contempt.

    Case in point. When someone said that smoking doesn’t cause cancer, I resisted the temptation to respond with “What are you smoking?” I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic or serious, so I responded with “Really?” Turns out he meant that smoking is not a direct cause, but a big risk factor, so I asked if drunk driving causes car accidents, to see if he has a double-standard indicative of bias.

  50. Petrucio says:

    As skeptics, everyone around here seems to be pretty big on wanting more evidence that being a dick would be less effective at reaching your audience.

    Well I call bollocks on that, big time. Even if we had clear evidence that 90% of people responded better to niceness and politeness, it would make no sense to stop with the dickiness entirely, since there would still be 10% left that would not be persuaded no matter how much niceness you throw at him, but just might start to think about his beliefs if confronted differently.

    And even if everyone wanted to take on the don’t be a dick approach, just imagine PZ trying to blog non-dickfull style full time. It would probably suck, that’s just not him.

    And if PZ is not a dick as P.P says, then fuck it, what the hell are we discussing here, dicks are as elusive as real ghosts then. Sure, youtube commenters are prominent on dickness front, but that would be no reason for that talk now would it? I’m sure TAM audience was packed with youtube dickheads (that was sarcasm, BTW).

    And don’t get me wrong, I love P.P. and I am myself usually a user of the niceness approach (with a shitload of dirty words in the niceness package, but never directed at the target audience), but everyone should simply do what they do the way they do and know how.

  51. Garvarn says:

    What would motivate Jane or John Doe to join the skeptic movement? Well, if Jane or John are predisposed for New Age or some related lunacy, the chance they would join the skeptic movement is nil. What if they are “sitting on the fence”? Well, the probability that they are interested at all in these issues is rather low and to make them interested under the conditions stipulated by the media culture we live in would demand resources that even the secular humanists lack. But what if Jane and John have started to react negatively on the current swarm of psychics, healers and miracle mongers and would be inclined to contribute to an organization that is against woo-woo? Would they be attracted to an organization that is available for questions and mainly concerned with not upsetting anyone, or would they be more attracted to an organization that often, actively and publicly denounces woo-woo claims in a clear-cut and uncompromising manner?

    • Mike McRae says:

      Ah, I see what you did there. ;) Ridicule, mockery and other forms of aggressive language is not synonymous with ‘clearcut and uncompromising’. One can be clear and concise and not waver in their position (which is how I’d define ‘uncompromising’) without needing to resort to employing ridicule.

      • Garvarn says:

        I’m sorry Mike, but “clearcut and uncompromising” is very often, if not most of the time, regarded by opponents as ridicule, mockery and aggressive language.

      • Mike McRae says:

        No arguments on that. I’ve said as much even previously here – often mere contrary opinions will be taken as offensive. While I disagree that is often (in my experience in science communication, it’s rather rare – maybe I just know how to word my communications?), in some occasions it can’t be helped.

        However, given this is a discussion on intended ridicule, where communication is chosen for its mocking tone or intent to create a sense of shame, I don’t see the relevance. There’s a world of difference between employing ridicule as an outreach technique and a person incidentally taking offense simply because you dared to disagree with them.

      • Max says:

        Compare “bogus claims” with “unsubstantiated claims”. The word “bogus” is MORE vague, and its misinterpretation got Simon Singh into hot water.

  52. David Jones says:

    I just shuddered at being lectured at by someone who has himself shown quite a lot of dickish behaviour.

  53. brown-petunia says:

    Surely it’s not so hard to work out who these ‘dicks’ are. Being an Australian, I prefer the term ‘wankers’. Are you with me Brits? I must have seen too many American teen movies;’ You’re like…such a ….like…..dick!’
    You know when you’re reading a comment thread and you are enjoying the good critical thinkers who are edgy, intelligent, quick witted and on topic but then someone gets too insulting and you think, ‘Hang on I don’t want them on the team’
    The last instance of this for me was Mike Celizic’s blogpost: Cancer Journal, a Happy Birthday Despite Grim News. The very first commenter was an insipid christian making the usual claims. You can imagine what followed. I was totally onboard with most of the Atheist commenter’s who pointed out how arrogant and inappropriate this first comment was.
    So; I was OK with this comment,
    “Are you for real? You crazy christians don’t pass up an opportunity to shove your loony crap down somebody’s throat. The guy has a couple weeks left to live, and you’re pawning your fairy tales on him? How utterly tasteless and crude.”

    But this guy is a ‘dick’,
    “Sorry, I can’t work out how to downvote the despicable vomit of @!$%# that HotTubMan has spewed upon your website. I personally hope he dies a horrid death.”
    So that is where I draw the line. As soon as I read the ‘horrid death’ bit I really didn’t care about any of his opinions. I see Atheists and Skeptics make crap comments like this a bit too often. If I see the word f#%ktard in a skeptics rant, which I do, then I think, ‘What a wanker!’
    I think that PZ’s approach is fine but a percentage of his followers are bound to be wankers. Didn’t he ‘have words’ about his mob sending hatemail after Crackergate? Richard Dawkins has maybe forgotten that he had to pull up many of his commenter’s on their behavior after the furore over his website revamp.
    I agree with Phil Plait. Please don’t be wankers.

    • Petrucio says:

      I agree, there are dicks in the comments. But it’s usually not the people actually blogging and participating more actively in the skeptic community.

      Do you really think the author of that comment would go to TAM or watch Phil’s talk online?

      It’s a bit optimistic to think we can eradicate these trolls. And if you are not specific that these are the people you have in mind, many will assume otherwise, and it’s going to get nasty.

      You gave a clear cut example, that’s what we are all waiting for Phil to do. It’s pretty easy, there’s no real excuse to allow this to go on for as long as it has.

      • You gave a clear cut example, that’s what we are all waiting for Phil to do. It’s pretty easy, there’s no real excuse to allow this to go on for as long as it has.

        Calls for Phil to name names or “define dick” direct the conversation away from his actual point — which was not that “dick” is a definable category with members like X and Y, but that bad behavior is common and unhelpful. He did specify some of the sorts of behaviors he meant, including “insults,” “name-calling” and “scoring cheap points.” I don’t think anyone denies that name-calling and insults happen.

        Incidentally, one of the ironies of this debate is that many of those who call for Phil to give clear cut examples are the same ones to retort that scientific research which specifies examples and quantifies outcomes must not be generalizable to skeptical communication.

  54. paul barry says:

    the dick scale, from least to biggest.

    And who doesn’t think each one is great? except for PZ. He is a dick.

    1. Carl Sagan
    2. Joe Nickell
    3. Martin Gardner
    4. Paul Kurtz
    5. Steve Novella
    6. Phil Plait
    7. James Randi
    8. Jamy Ian Swiss
    9. Richard Dawkins
    10. PZ Myers

    just kidding PZ

  55. Roxane says:

    If dickishness didn’t work on some level–and I think it does on the level of rallying the troops–then Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck would not be household names.

  56. dbltapp says:

    “A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.”

    Ben Franklin

  57. Doug says:

    Several years ago, I read an essay by Isaac Asimov, someone I have always admired. He was describing a talk he gave at which a young woman stood up and asked if he believed in flying saucers. He said something like, “No I don’t, and anyone who does is a crackpot!” He then chortled to the reader, “You should have seen her face drop!” or something like that. I’m not surprised. She asked a civil question, and got a verbal slap in the face in response. Reading this, I thought, “Why didn’t he say, ‘No, I don’t, and here’s why,’and go onto explain the reasons for his belief?”
    Some skeptics might say, “Anyone dumb enough to believe in flying saucers is to dumb to bother with,” but this is simply not true. When I was younger I believed in UFOs, ancient astronauts, the Bermuda Triangle, thinking plants, telekinesis, astrology and other rubbish. This was not because I was stupid or crazy; it was because I didn’t know any better. Our school library had books on these subjects; they were discussed in magazines and TV shows; I assumed that they were facts–no-one at that time told me otherwise. It was by reading Asimov, Randi and other skeptics that I lost my beliefs in pseudo-science. However, I don’t think that I would have if Asimov had insulted me to my face, as he did that woman.

    • Jackweline says:

      Anecdata proves nothing of course, but to drop away from the plate of proof for a minute and resort to mere unevidenced opinion – I think that someone you’ve just insulted when they’ve asked you a reasonable question* is far more likely to think “Oh, whatever, dickhead – I asked a polite question, and you didn’t even give any reasons. You’re on the side of reason? I don’t think so” than “Oh, I must be gravely misinformed, I will go and research the reasons this guy had for mocking me, the one’s he didn’t bother to mention which must be persuasive”*(however misinformed they may be to need to ask that question)

  58. JGB says:

    It all depends on what type of dick you are!

    You can sway audiences by ridiculing positions (and even proponents of those positions) in the right way. For example, when debating a Creationist, you can take a lot of wind out of their sails with “My God didn’t make everything by hand – He/She/It was smarter than that!” (assuming your stance is not atheistic).

    I probably shouldn’t say it this way – but if you drive a wedge between the fanatics and the moderates by highlighting the untenable nature of the extreme position you can be very effective. If you can do that with soundbites coming from the perspective of the moderates you can do it with great power.

    The trick is in being the right kind of dick.

    • Jackweline says:

      Yes! We need to drive a wedge between the moderates and the fundamentalists! Not to drive a wedge between us and them and push them closer together!

      PZ, Dawkins and others have often said “Where are the moderates condemning this? Moderate only enable fundies!” etc, but don’t seem to realise that plenty of moderates out there are opposing fundamentalists* and part of the reason they might not be seeing it is that moderates are not going to come to your blog and agree with you if you’re being a dick to all religious people, rather than singling out the really troubling aspects of fundamentalism with cogent and incisive rational arguments.

      *They’d be stupid not too, seeing as they’re as bad as atheists or Muslims in the fundamentalists eyes.

  59. Mat says:

    Ok. Straw poll. Christopher Hitchens: “Dick” or “not dick”?

  60. Stacy Bird says:

    I’m an artist and most of my friends are as well. This puts me into a difficult position, because artists tend to be deeply suspicious of science, yet “open-minded” to all New Age ideas. The pressure to be nice means that I must never, ever contradict anyone’s belief in astrology, homeopathy, tarot cards, palm reading, etc… It is taken for granted that, as an artist, I share all the same beliefs.

    The second that I open my mouth to point out that most New Age ideas have already been tested and found faulty, misleading and/or useless, I am viewed, not only as “a dick,” but also as an apologist for some nebulous evil empire that is taking away everyone’s liberty to think independently.

    I’m already a dick by not believing and, once I open my mouth, the response is usually explosive. If you are not an artist, you might not have experienced the peer pressure to accept all woo-woo. Believe me, it is every bit as intense as the pressure to believe in God can be. But, who’s the dick in these arguments? Me, for daring to speak out, or my friends, who declare me to be tromping on all they hold dear? New Age beliefs have become dogma in the art world, and to be a skeptic is blasphemy.

    I suspect that many new age practitioners are artists themselves, and that this is a case of supporting one’s own. After all, it’s tough to survive off one’s painting, but cranial-sacral therapy pays very well. When I speak out, I am possibly rocking an important financial boat, as well as a religious one.

    There’s also the question of familiarity. New Age practitioners sound like us, look like us and espouse the same political and social views as we do. Doctors and scientists use scary jargon, flash incomprehensible statistics and are frigheningly organized and… normal looking. When I dare to suggest that there may be truth in the statistics and that we can learn the jargon, I am viewed with such intense suspicion that you would think I had just supported torture.

    I’m all for not being a dick. I’m just saying that when you are crossing a deeply held belief system, backed up by financial need, it’s pretty difficult not to be viewed as one, no matter what you do.

    Good luck to all you skeptics out there!

    • Jackweline says:

      There are certainly lots of people out there who will find any contradiction of their beliefs to be rude, however there are also those who don’t find that rude but do find actual rudeness rude. All Phil Plait is saying is, don’t be rude and you won’t alienate those people on top of the ones you will alienate either way.

  61. Henry says:

    “Don’t be condescending” would have a more accurate, albeit less interesting, title for Phil’s talk. People have faith in God and believe supernatural or pseudoscientic claims for good reasons. That makes them wrong, but not stupid, evil or careless.

    • erikthebassist says:

      “Don’t be condescending” would have a more accurate, albeit less interesting, title for Phil’s talk. People have faith in God and believe supernatural or pseudoscientic claims for good reasons. That makes them wrong, but not stupid or evil or careless.

      Fixed :^)

  62. Kenneth Polit says:

    Creationists want to destroy science and send us back to the dark ages. Anti-vaxxers want our children to die. Religious fundamentalists want to destroy democracy. These people are the enemy. They should be treated with all the distain we can muster. They don’t respect us and we are not obligated to respect them. Screw ‘em, they’ll screw us if they get the chance.

  63. SaltyDroid says:

    Someone sent me to this post. I usually like this blog … but then sometimes I come here and it looks like this. You all speaking your own little language … having some massive flame war over semantics. What an adorable waste of time!

    I guess I didn’t realize that skepticism was like a whole movement. Are there matching terrycloth robes with insignia or anything?

    You seem to be having a hard time finding examples of proper dick-hole-ery in support of logic, reason, and sanity. So I offer you my blog.

    I don’t think I’d be flattering myself to say that I’m one of the biggest dicks of all time. Most of my posts contain vicious personal attacks intentionally crafted to cause suffering. Here’s a taste …

    “Andy Jenkins really wishes that he was Frank Kern. He wishes that he was 6 inches taller. He wishes that he was twenty years younger. He wishes that he had three less necks. But sometimes wishes don’t come true. Sometimes we just keep getting older and more unattractive {no matter how stupidly we brush our gay hair} :: and we’re slowly forced to realize that we are NOTHING. That we have no true friends :: that we are not loved because we are not capable of love. Well not me of course … or you … but most definitely shitty little scum bag Andy Jenkins.”

    Satisfied? I’m a dick. For sure … no room for debate.

    And yet … I’m effective. I have a large audience {bigger than Skepticblog by a pretty wide margin}. And I’m unquestionably helping open eyes in a dark room.

    If you’re talking to a nice Christian lady who just wants to tell you how much she loves Jesus while you’re flying to Tampa … then yeah … don’t be a dick. If you write a blog that aims to slow down cult style con men … then maybe tea and conversation isn’t going to do the trick.

    “Don’t be a dick” = totally meaningless.

    100% about the context.

    I hope this doesn’t mean that I can’t be issued a robe.

    • Mike McRae says:

      Thank you for posting this. Seriously – by coincidence, I was just discussing with somebody how often ‘output’ and ‘outcomes’ were confused, and needed an example. This is a good one.

      So many people feel that big numbers equates effectiveness. If you have a substantial audience, it simply MUST mean you’re doing something right. It’s a bold assumption, but empty on closer examination. The very fact you’ve stated it is unquestionable that you’re ‘helping open eyes in a dark room’ reflects (even if it is unintentional) that you’re happy to presume it’s true without a desire to really stop and think critically about it. Big numbers and back patting must equal ‘eyes being opened’.

      Big audiences only equal one thing – big audiences. That’s it. Lots of people who agree with your values. I’m quite sure there are thousands of people who all share your conclusions, and I’m positive your vitriol makes them feel good about having them. But ‘opening eyes’? Well, if it’s unquestionable, there’s probably not much point in questioning it for you, is there?

      Great example of selective skepticism if you ask me.

      • Jackweline says:

        Yes, exactly. And despite not being beholden to any Dark Ages theistic homophobia he’s so caught up in his succesful popular dickish blog that he feels happy using homophobic slurs in his “vicious personal attacks intentionally crafted to cause suffering” (His words, not mine)

        Those supporting dickishness, you have to ask yourself – where does it stop?

        Is this the result you want? Do we want our posts to resemble the one above? If homophobia is fine, how about misogyny? Racism? – You know black people are often more religious in America, right? Would it be cool to start browbeating them for being primitive and superstitious? Would it be cool to start saying that the current religion is as primitive as African voodoo* nonsense? What if it turned out that this was a particularly effective method of deconverting black people?

        If you don’t want any of that**, then you do believe that there is a line. The only question now is, where should we draw the line? You may agree that racism, misogyny and homophobia are over the line. Phil Plait is suggesting that insults, name calling and vitriol are too, most of the time.

        **If you do, then we don’t want or need you, go join the KKK or something

  64. Matt says:

    Kenneth @62 I suspect you said that tongue in check but I also have a horrid feeling that I’m wrong and that there are a lot of people who actually believe what you just wrote.

    Creationists are not trying to destroy science, they actually believe that they are write and we are misguided. Their aim is to help us ‘see the light’ as it were. Anti-vaxxers do not want children to die, they are also misguided, often due to poor information and encouragement from people who are not dickish. They genuinely fear that there is a problem with vaccines. Religious fundamentalists are not after democracy, they are just equally misguided in their belief that they have all the answers.

    Okay, it is possible that there may be a few extremists that could fit those descriptions, but the misguided majority are not wishing destruction or death to anyone.

    If you adopt the attitude ‘screw em’ then you are also a fundamentalist, just on the other side as them. This effectively enforces a ‘them and us’ scenario. That attitude is not helpful long term and it only entrenches the position of those with the wrong viewpoint. There was a study that showed that the more you tell people they are wrong, the more they entrench in their viewpoint. Sadly I am unable to find a reference to it otherwise I’d provide a link.

    Effectively correcting people away from believing in the untrue generally doesn’t happen overnight. It usually happens over time and as the result of many conversations. If those conversations involve being mocked, laughed at and other unpleasantness then its hardly surprising that the people involved will choose not to hang around those horrid skeptic people who are so arrogant and haughty and smug believing they are right about everything.

    Treating a person with respect is not the same as treating their odd belief with respect. It takes more effort to be civil, but its effort worth investing in.

    Fundamentalism is ugly and displays the worst of humanity. Fundamentalism is not exclusive to religion.

    • Kenneth Polit says:

      My tongue was literally buried in my cheek. It really is about context. I have a lot of deeply religious relatives(they live in a different state, and I mean that both geographically and “of mind”) So I don’t see them very often. When I visit, they drag me to church, I go out of politeness and because they spring for lunch afterwards. After one service a friend of my cousin asked me outright what denomination I was. I didn’t want to tell him flat out that I was an atheist. Instead I said that my relationship with the almighty was very personal and I don’t discuss it with anyone but Him. He gave me a puzzled look and then quoted the bible passage about praying in secret. It made everyone happy and kept the peace(although I think it may have embarrased some of the group). Sometimes being right isn’t as important as we think it is.