Don't Be a Dick, Part 1: the video

By Phil Plait | August 17, 2010 11:42 am

[Note: As is obvious by the title, the article below contains mildly NSFW language.]

In July, I spoke at The Amaz!ng Meeting 8 in Las Vegas. Sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation, it’s the largest meeting of critical thinkers and skeptics in the world. Unlike my usual talks about the abuse of science that I had given at previous TAMs, this time I wanted to tackle a much thornier issue: how we skeptics argue with believers of various stripes.

My first point was that we must keep in mind our goal. If it’s to change the hearts and minds of people across the world, then at least as important as what we say is how we say it. And my second point was pretty simple… but you’ll get to it around 24 minutes in. It’s obvious enough.

Here’s the video. The whole thing is about a half hour long.

Phil Plait – Don’t Be A Dick from the James Randi Educational Foundation.

I’ll admit I was pretty nervous about this talk, as I was basically telling people to be nicer. It’s hard for some people to hear a message like that, and I knew there would be backlash. There was. I have heard from quite a few people about the talk, as you might expect. They fell into three basic categories: some agreeing with me, others saying being dick has its place, and still others who misinterpreted what I was saying.

I’ll post links to copious blog articles on all sides of this issue a bit later, but I want to clear a few things up here first.

Some people are claiming I was saying we need to be milquetoasts. That’s ridiculous. I was very clear that anger has its place, that we need to be firm, and that we need to continue the fight.

Some were claiming they have a right to be dicks — I’m bemused by this, as of course you have that right. But that doesn’t mean it’s most effective, or that you should be one.

Others took issue with my initial question, asking how many people were "converted" to skepticism by having a skeptic yelling at them and insulting them. In fact, at least one person said that method does work and worked on them. That’s good for them, but given what we know about the way people argue and change their views on issues, the vast majority of people will become further entrenched when confronted in that way.

In other words, being a dick not only usually doesn’t work, it almost always works against the bigger goal of swaying the most people we can.

Perhaps I should have been more clear on what I mean by being a dick. I thought I had been clear, but a lot of people seem to think that I meant anyone who gets upset, or angry, or argues with emotion. I wouldn’t include satire in that category, or comedic work, or even necessarily using insults; tone and attitude count here. Think of it this way: when someone argues that way do you think to yourself, "What a dick"? I don’t; at least not necessarily. I think that way when the person belittles their opponent, uses obviously inflammatory language, or overly aggressively gets in their face.

Y’know. Being a dick.

Again, to be clear, I did not say we should back down when confronted. I did not say we should be weak against ignorance. I did not say we shouldn’t be angry. I did not say we should be passionless.

In fact, I argued the exact opposite. We need our anger, or strength, and our passion.

And one last point: a lot of folks were speculating that in my talk I was targeting specific people such as PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, even Randi himself. I wasn’t. I was thinking fairly generically when I wrote the talk, and though I did have some specific examples of dickery in mind, the talk itself was not aimed at any individual person. In fact, though the basis of the talk was due to the degradation in tone I’ve been seeing lately (and I’m not at all alone in seeing it), it was also something of a confessional. Like most skeptics, at some points — too many, I now feel — in the past I’ve been a dick. I regret those times, and will strive to make sure they stay in the past.

So no, the talk was not aimed at any specific individuals. It was aimed at everyone, everywhere, and also inward toward myself. I cannot accuse others of that which I have not at the very least searched for in myself. And I have indeed found it in myself, which was the final factor in my making the speech in the first place.

I can’t promise that I won’t be a dick. But I will strive mightily to try. That’s the most I can do, and the most I can ask of anyone.

[Note: There are two more parts of this saga coming up soon, including links to many and diverse opinions on what I said, and the talk’s aftermath.]


Comments (269)

Links to this Post

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  1. thanks for sharing this (i had heard about it and was searching for it earlier). i’m constantly torn between how i should share “correct” information with believers- part of me wants to be fiercly blunt because “it’s 2010!”, and another part of me wants to use humor and patience. i’m excited to hear your thoughts on this so thank you.

  2. Without having watched the video, I can tell you that I probably already agree wholeheartedly with you.

    I absolutely cringe when I hear or read a skeptic mistreating someone. I have seen people jump to conclusions about what someone was trying to say, drag in all kinds of behavior that they impute on the person, and go off on a complete tangent, rather than address the issue or question that was actually asked. In other words, ‘being a dick’.

    The tactic of using humor (if it is not too belittling) works well, but a mix of humor and straightforward and dispassionate discussion of the facts, as well as a heartfelt and passionate argument for reason also works, and works very well.

    BTW, it was nice meeting you at SETIcon. Sorry that we didn’t have more time to talk.

  3. Becca Stareyes

    I’d also argue that there’s a difference between being a dick when out in public and venting around like-minded individuals. When one is venting, it’s easy to throw around insults, because you’re angry and you want to commiserate. On the other hand, you don’t want to do so when talking to people you want to convince — insulting the other side looks bad to the middle, so most people are more careful in their public talks than they would be around beers in the pub, or whatever.

    Now, one of the things is that it’s a wide-open Internet, and a blog like Dr. Myers’s, which is, in part*, geared to venting to a community of like-minded people when annoying stuff happens, will be read like ‘this is how Dr. Myers’s community is to people’. (Heck, I think it was why someone noted it was odd that Christopher Hitchens, noted for being an atheist, was saying he appreciated those that were praying for his recovery, despite his noted disbelief in the efficacy of prayer — of course, in reality, Hitchens can both think prayer doesn’t work and appreciate that strangers have some sentiment for him.)

    I don’t really have an answer here, since I think in-group blogs are important as are outreach blogs. Perhaps to try to avoid ad hominims even when angry, though it does boggle the mind when confronted with some of the evils of the world.

    * Besides the interesting papers, and pictures of animals and plants and especially squid, and playing with internet polls, and real life updates, and all the things blogs are for.

  4. Listen here you *&^#$! I’ll $#^%@!$# as much as I ^$#& like. And furthermore, &^%#&^$# you and your &*^#&*%$#…


    In all seriousness, great article (and I look forward to viewing the video when I get home). I too have been a dick a few times in my life. Although, sometimes being a dick is the only coping mechanism that keeps me from throttling the stupidity out of some poeple. I figure being a dick is less likely to land me in trouble than physical assualt! 😀

  5. Makes Sense...

    Say you’re speaking with someone who is skeptical of man-made global warming… If you, through the course of the conversation, find out they believe in a religion (even if they are only a fair-weather – ha pun – member of said religion) and start blathering on about flying spaghetti monsters, car bombs, and altar boys, pulling out all your clever phrases… Guess what? They’re not going to take your argument about GW seriously. They’ll just see you as “just another richard cranium” and write you, and your valid points, off.

  6. Glad to see this finally seeing the light of day for all those that couldn’t attend.

    I think it was poor timing (but how could you avoid it?) given Mooney’s gaff and non-apology over the whole strawman-sock-puppet episode.

    The whole affair diluted your message with distractions and a global audience that definitely wasn’t ready to hear more on that topic, which is kind of sad.

  7. Guysmiley

    I really like the hammer analogy. As a kid I’d watch my dad drive a framing nail in one swing. It takes a great deal of skill and control to actually do that.

  8. Father Leon

    This is interestingly refreshing, Phil. Nice to see you coming clean on that issue.

    I sure hope many more will follow suit.

    @Larian Le Quella

    Well, not sure being a dick is less likely to land you in trouble than physical assault. Being a dick may actually subject YOU to a physical assault… You know how easily things can escalate, don’t you? 😉

  9. I will listen to the talk later tonight with my expectations turned to the max.

    I do believe that we are challenged by the fact, that dickishness (spelling?) is in the eye of the beholder.

    In Denmark humor and satire have been corner-stones of the political and religious debate for centuries. Whereas American politicians might score a point by raising indignation in his audience through an exceptionally poignant remark about his opponents integrity, a Danish politician will score a point if he can blend a few subtle jokes into his argument.

    We also have a long legacy of satirizing religion. It is generally accepted, that if it is you do not consider something to be your sacrament, then you should feel free to be as sacrilegious as you want to be in your treatment of it. Not to mock or insult the believers, but because ‘hey! It’s out in the public square, you might as well have fun with it…’. I do not know a single Christian, who has serious beef with the tons of cartoons mocking their faith or even the porno-film about Jesus (the second coming of Christ, the manuscript must have practically written itself).

    People from other cultures perceive this irreverent ‘if it is not your sacrament, then you can be as sacrilegious as you want to be’-attitude as “being a dick.” So do we flush our own culture down the drain to avoid being dicks in the eyes of some immigrants and many people living on far away continents? Hell no!

    I think we need to worry a lot less about being dicks, because we are always being dicks in one or the other beholders eyes.

  10. Father Leon, yes, but then I can claim self defense. Whereas if I try to initiate the activity of throttling the stupidity out, I would probably have a lot more explaining to do. 😉

  11. Father Leon


    Don’t forget that stupidity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

    Anyways, the point I wanted to make is, not being a dick will most likely keep you out of trouble, end of story. 😉

  12. astrokid.nj

    Very good Phil. This is a subject of great relevance to many of us.
    I find that I may be a dick out of frustration, when dealing with the same believers time after time. And they are actually family members, and since we spend a lot of time together, some of their insane beliefs always come to the fore. Picking a fight is not the way to go.

  13. To quote another great scientist, “Hey hey hey, don’t be mean. There’s no need to be mean. Cause remember, no matter where you go…there you are.” B.B.

  14. not being a dick will most likely keep you out of trouble

    Depends on how the other guy is defining “dick”.

  15. Coping Mechanism. 😐 Lesser of two reactions.

    And maybe I lived too close to Denmark in my formative years? 😉 Yeah, that’s it!

  16. Thanks Phil for this talk. I was unable to attend TAM this year due to work commitments but it is great to hear this argument put in such an eloquent and succinct way. At CFI Canada and CASS, the skeptical committee, we are trying to educate people on the powers of critical thinking and this is the approach I advocate, bar none. Alienating people does not work; I have had good success with the softer approach many times at work, in an ambulance service, where we discuss health topics all the time, but many of us do not have advanced degrees or research experience. I look always approach it in a “gee, that’s a good question, lets find out together” way and include the person making the claim in the research.

    Thanks again, and thank you for your passion!

  17. Trying not to be a dick is sometimes walking a fine line. When you have limited time, being a dick is a very easy thing to do when expressing your point. I don’t know how many times one of my Facebook friends have posted a link to some woo or quackery, and I’ve made some snarky, smart ass comment. Sometimes I just can’t help myself. Then they respond and the thread actually becomes a debate and I’m having to research points I’m trying to make to make sure they are correct. No matter how logical my argument is, that ad hominem is still at the top of the thread and I think, “Damn, why did I say that?”

  18. Father Leon

    @Naked Bunny

    Could be a “gal” too.

    That’s why I used the caveat “most likely”.

  19. Agreed, being a dick (ad hominem attacks, mean-spirited ridicule, petty sarcasm) can be counterproductive in public. But being a dick in some contexts can be very powerful.

    I point to the Penn & teller show as a wonderful and powerful use of satire and parody. And they get their facts straight. In a serious public debate or in the media, yeah, dickishness backfires most of the time. The focus shifts to the speaker’s dickishness and away from the issues.

    I get into these dick-jousting matches with right-wing professional anti-science deniers all the time — somehow they are ALWAYS middle-class white men — and it is just a frustrating waste of energy. Oh, by the way, before the abuse starts, I’m a middle-class white man too, bro’s…

  20. That was a great speech. Great point. I’m coming at it from a different angle (because I’m not a “skeptic”), but seriously, I’ve been thinking this for a long time for Christians too. I just reposted your video for people to see, and I hope they hear you because what you’re saying is important for ALL discussion/discourse.

  21. Somite

    I’m confused about the chess analogy. What is it you are saying we should sacrifice for the sake of the final goal? Principles? The truth?

    A rhetorical exercise like framing and accommodation is precisely the problem we are trying to fix. To scale back on a conclusion for the sake of “feelings” would make us no different than our cultural competitors.

  22. Michel

    About dick:
    However, my favorite Dick was living on the 3rd rock from ths sun.

  23. Could be a “gal” too.

    Political correctness, the acceptable dickishness.

  24. Well, I think this was something that needed to be said. Sort of a balance.

    I was really moved when Christopher Hitchens (I have to admit to some big laughs when hearing him speak in the past at TAMs) said it was “ok” for people to pray for him if it made them feel better. I sure sent one up for him then, though mine was more “I hope he keeps inspiring people with his dignity in dealing with cancer, and his grace in accepting his own contribution to his illness and his has ability to keep learning and speaking and writing about what he is going through for a long time.”

    I have “been a dick” with psychics. In fact I won’t do any skeptic work with psychics because my own personal pain and tragedy will not let me NOT be a dick. I once asked Randi if we could spend the million dollars from the challange to hire hit men to take out the major psychics. I wasn’t kidding. So, instead, I work with aliens/UFOs/abudctees. It’s ground where I don’t have too much personal loss and anger, and where calmness and caring can help a lot. It enables me to be myself. I do good and I leave to other wonderful skeptics the job of dealing with psychics that talk to the dead and charge money (UNTIL THERE IS NO MONEY LEFT AND THEN THEY LEAVE YOU OUT IN THE COLD AND PEOPLE SOMETIMES COMMIT SUICIDE AND WHO WOULD DO THAT TO A PARENT THAT HAS LOST A CHILD!!!AARRRRGGGHHH!…see can’t do it!) I share my story with other skeptics, and they take it on. Without hiring hit men.

  25. Timmy

    THANK YOU, PHIL! The major problems I have with the skeptical movement aren’t based on the facts they present, but how they present them. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is, in my opinion, used by a lot of people as an excuse to be a dick, and not as a way to point out the political issues around teaching creationism in schools. And it seems like most skep-dicks think that all religious people are morons, and say so as much as possible. The only way to solve problems and teach people is to address them in a way that will open their minds to your point of view and kick-start their critical thinking.

  26. kodos96

    Don’t you think that calling people who disagree with you a name with strong connotations to the Holocaust, might qualify as “being a dick”?

  27. Chaos

    @Naked Bunny with a Whip:

    Well, if the other guy is reasonably reasonable about the tone of discussion, not being a dick will more likely keep you out of trouble. If he isn´t, most likely *nothing* is going to keep you out of trouble.

    But even if it gets to that, at least it´ll have been *him* being the dick.

  28. Somite (21): I was quite clear about the chess analogy: what you are sacrificing is your own desire to score cheap points so that you can actually change someone’s mind.

    Framing and accommodation are not problems, and the fact that so many skeptics think they are is a major problem. A lot of people have redefined these terms to make them scapegoats. But framing is simply changing the way you say an argument so that your opponent can hear and process it. I wouldn’t use calculus to describe planetary motion to second graders, for example. That’s framing.

    And accommodation is not dumbing down or changing the core of the argument to appease your opponent, it’s simply accepting that their frame of reference is different than yours, and – gasp – accommodating that. A lot of religious people are not creationists, but as long as we lump them all together we do ourselves no favors. A lot of religious people would be on our side if so many skeptics would simply accept that we don’t agree on everything, but we do on some things.

    I’ll note a lot of libertarians are skeptics, and I disagree quite strongly with a lot of their stances, but I also accept their input when it comes to other skeptical topics. That’s accommodation, too.

  29. kodos96 (26): Deniers are deniers. It’s too bad that some people automatically think Holocaust when that word is used, but that’s something you need to get past.

  30. Great talk, and it reminded me of when I was young and I believed in a lot of new-age stuff. I saw James Randi on TV and thought he was pretty impressive and made a lot of sense. Then the next day or so I was speaking to a friend who was also heavily into new age things, and she started tearing into him. I was so surprised that she was so hostile and so quick to belittle and insult him that it made me want to know more about skepticism. Which just goes to show how anger can push people away from the point you’re trying to make, and how shouting just makes people put their fingers in their ears.

    Mmm, I should get a job writing bumper stickers…

  31. MoonShark

    Others took issue with my initial question, asking how many people were “converted” to skepticism by having a skeptic yelling at them and insulting them. In fact, at least one person said that method does work and worked on them. That’s good for them, but given what we know about the way people argue and change their views on issues, the vast majority of people will become further entrenched when confronted in that way.

    I love skeptics and being a skeptic, but WAY too often I see them throw out half-baked psychology like this. We have an empirical field that covers this. Is it a real phenomenon or not? Link to a peer-reviewed journal already! Sheesh. We’re happy to be skeptical of so-called “common sense” the rest of the time, right? Why not here?

    Yeah, I could look it up myself (university gives me access to great databases), but I’m not the one telling people how to behave (except generically to “use available research”). Come on already.

  32. I’m inspired. Thanks.

  33. Somite

    Phil Plait (28) Isn’t being religious just like being a creationist? Am I missing something here? I think you are creating to many “us vs. them” dichotomies. This is about facts (usually scientific) and their acceptance no matter how anyone feels about them. That should be the message of skepticism. Reality doesn’t care what you think.

  34. Brice Gilbert

    I don’t understand people calling Dawkins a dick. I understand Hitchens. Hitchens knows what he’s doing and I love him for it, but Dawkin’s has never sounded like a dick to me.

  35. MoonShark

    Phil: Jerry Coyne has been chronicling how “accommodationism” is affecting science orgs like the AAAS, NCSE, and NAS. If it were as simple as you describe, I’d agree with you, but instead what it ends up doing is wasting limited resources by giving a platform to nonsense.

    Or put another way: Accommodating people is wonderful (humanist, even); accommodating stupid ideas is dangerous. That’s how we deal with antivaxxers, and it should be no different for religion.

  36. CReidS

    Dear fellow skeptics

    Being a dick is the equivalent to of ending each sentence in your argument with, “and you’re an idiot too.” It is a largely ad hominem, emotional response that is directed at something other than the truth. You’ll never convince the person it’s aimed at, and 9 times in 10 you’ll lose the audience as well. Many people’s idea of science is someone telling them that they are idiots and what to think.

    Humans simply aren’t rational. And since you are a human, dear skeptic, neither are you. It is why you want to ‘win’ so badly.

    Try this instead: “Why do you believe that?” Ask, don’t tell. Show them a little rational inquiry.

    Keep repeating this phrase until they get to the point where they say, “Well, my Reverend is a really great guy, and I trust him.” Or, “I heard it on the news, and listen to them all the time.”

    Ask again. “Why do you trust him/that?”

    They’ll say something like, “Well, I just do.”

    You can then address the difference. “Well, like you, I trust decent people. The scientists that uncovered/reported/etc finding ‘X’ are good people; I might not know them personally, but they were trained to think about things in a very detailed way. More than that, they are in competition with the people around them, so even their good ideas get shot down. Also, they worry about their reputation; if they are too far off, then no one will trust them. For them to report that ‘X’, it means that they must be pretty sure of it. And I trust that, until I find out I shouldn’t.”

    You can start to layer in argument here, at this stage: “And we’ve trusted NOAA to predict ‘X’ for over 40 years.” Or, “This is based on the same idea that gives us computer chips.”

    Ask them to look into it for themselves, if they don’t trust you.

    If they get angry, ask that they be civil. You may need to ask “why” a bit more to get at the cause of the anger. You’d be surprised how much people lighten up when they realize that you are listening to them.

    You won’t necessarily ‘win’ the original argument. That isn’t the point. If this person is a Holocaust denier, you’ll never win. But you can let them be the dick, and lose 9 out of 10 audience members.

    That is the real win.

  37. EJ

    If you have a superior argument, as skeptics generally do, it’s almost always counterproductive to be an ass about it. Most people just don’t bother to listen to people who are being deliberately unpleasant – life’s too short.

    Which doesn’t mean you have to accomodate people’s silly beliefs – but I just don’t see what’s accomplished by being nasty when you can win on the merits of your argument.

  38. Frank

    It occurs to me that believing one should be a dick simply because one has the right to be a dick would be a prime example of the Naturalistic Phallus-y.

  39. @EJ,

    Sadly, even having rock solid proof and facts won’t always change a person’s mind, and they will generally become more convinced that “the devil” is trying to fool them or whatever mental gymnastics they have to do in order to cling to their bronze age fables.

    See this article:

  40. SL

    I agree.

    He who loses his temper loses the argument.

    The command “Don’t be a dick” is a bit self-contradictory though, isn’t it?

  41. MoonShark

    Sure, being vicious and nasty and harassing people who ask to be left alone is no way to run a civilization. But who’s advocating that? If that’s all this “dick” business is about, it seems like a strawman. (Note: At work, can’t watch a long video)

  42. Thank You

    Phil Said: ” A lot of religious people are not creationists, but as long as we lump them all together we do ourselves no favors. A lot of religious people would be on our side if so many skeptics would simply accept that we don’t agree on everything, but we do on some things.

    I’ll note a lot of libertarians are skeptics, and I disagree quite strongly with a lot of their stances, but I also accept their input when it comes to other skeptical topics. That’s accommodation, too.”

    From a Libertarian-6-times-a-year-Catholic who loves science, NASA, evolution, et al…. Thank you!

    I hate creationists. But I hate being lumped in with creationists even more!

  43. Paul

    Others took issue with my initial question, asking how many people were “converted” to skepticism by having a skeptic yelling at them and insulting them.

    The most common issue I saw was people saying that it’s not really the right question. Very few people think they can “convert” someone by yelling at and insulting them. But more often, what “dicks” do is yell at or insult people they are not trying to convince — say, Kent Hovind or Ray Comfort — to point out how ridiculous they are and convert bystanders. Take your posts on climate change denialists or Orac’s posts on anti-vaxxers, for instance. What is your take on this? It’s infinitely more relevant to any real world examples and interests than the question you provided in your presentation.

    As many people on the internet will point out, arguments are not always for the sake of convincing the people you are arguing with. Many times a skeptic is much more concerned with making good points so people who happen to see the interchange will recognize who has the stronger position (sometimes laced with insult among other rhetorical flourishes to keep things entertaining).

  44. Happy Camper

    Although there is a time and place for sarcasm everyone should avoid the tactic of losers and that is the ad-hominem(save that for trolls). Remember your real audience are the ones sitting on the fence not the true believers. A little humor goes a long way, be entertaining! A good rant is good now and then but be coherent and above all be entertaining! You can even get away with being a bit of a dick as long as you are being entertaining(see Penn Jillette). That said…..

    My road to skepticism started with one voice pleading for critical thinking and reason. Nobody has ever spoke to me with such eloquence about science and reason. It was as if he were speaking to me on a personal basis. Of course that person was Carl Sagan. What the skeptical movement needs is more like Carl Sagan and much less vitriol overall.

  45. Somite

    A few weeks ago I read my favorite treatise on “tone” at the EvolutionBlog at ScienceBlogs:

    “Let me also suggest that it is never a good argument to complain about someone’s tone by saying something like, “You’re not going to convince anyone!” That is a lazy argument used exclusively by people more interested in seeming above it all than in actually engaging the issues. Incivility is a tool in the arsenal. It is very good for calling attention to an issue and to a point of view. If the incivility is backed up by a good argument it can be very powerful.”

  46. SkepVic

    Hello Dr. Plait,
    I was wondering if you had a chance to review this journal article from Popular Physics regarding the efficacy of certain science communication strategies:

    It certainly seems to pertain to the topic at hand!

  47. Jason Dick

    Personally, I think the #1 most important strategy we need to follow is to be correct. This means, most importantly, that we accept the flaws in our own arguments and correct them (something that is often not easy to do, sadly).

    That said, I’m not convinced that you’re correct, Phil, that being a dick hurts. The one bit of empirical evidence I see cited is that acting that way most often causes people to harden in their original position. I have no doubt about that. I don’t think it’s worth arguing about.

    The problem with taking this as evidence that being a dick hurts is that it is relatively easy to come up with scenarios where it just doesn’t work. For example, if N people talk about how X is wrong and are jerks about it, while M people talk about how religion X is but are nice about it, how do we know that the N people talking about X being wrong makes them less likely to listen to the other M people? And even if it does, is the number of people who are convinced because of the nice people reduced more than the number of people convinced by the jerks? So, for example, if the number of people that are convinced by jerks is half the number of people convinced by nice people, but the jerks don’t effect the number convinced by nice people by more than 25%, being a jerk is still a net benefit.

    Another thing to bear in mind is that when you’re being a jerk to somebody, you may well have no intention whatsoever of convincing them. But, you may be somewhat hopeful that you’ll end up convincing somebody reading from the sidelines. From that perspective, being a bit of a jerk about it may be less likely to have a negative impact (since it’s not directed at that person).

    There’s another problem that any time you’re talking about another person being wrong, especially about an issue that religion touches on, you’re very likely to come off as a jerk just because of the subject matter. And when there’s tension between “being a jerk” and “being correct”, I’ll choose being correct every single time.

    Now, bear in mind that I don’t necessarily think it’s true that being a jerk is a net benefit. So far I remain unconvinced. I haven’t seen convincing arguments on either side of that debate just yet, though I do have to admit that I much prefer reading the “jerks” than I do reading the “nice people”. But one thing I am very firmly convinced of is that bad arguments are always a bad thing, and should therefore be avoided at all costs, no matter the tone in which they are presented. The reason why I am so convinced of this is simply that every time a person levies a bad argument against somebody, and they notice the flaws in said argument, that gives the person an excuse to not listen again. I see people entrenched in their wrong ideas draw out these bad arguments again and again and again. So I’m quite convinced that being correct is an objective that must not be compromised.

    Edit: After writing that last paragraph, I realized that I may well have fallen into my own trap here. I didn’t really argue sufficiently that being correct should not be compromised because I didn’t think it would be much of a point of contention. I believe I can back it up with a sufficient argument, but I just hope that it isn’t necessary. This comment is more than long enough already.

  48. Calli Arcale

    Thank You @ 42: that goes for me too! (With the minor exception that I’m a Lutheran, and politically a moderate. But those aren’t that important, really.)

    I think the biggest reason to avoid being a dick is because of the “practice what you preach” and “lead by example” philosophies. Words are great, but people will notice behavior more, and this is especially important when we’re talking about skepticism, because really, at it’s heart skepticism is the ultimate form of humility. It’s the recognition that we don’t know everything, that we don’t have some special wisdom, and that we can be wrong. I can’t think of any deeper humility than that.

    A lot of religious types in particular have this mistaken impression that science is a sort of hubris. Using science means thinking humans can know the answers to things, and that’s horribly misguided (in their view) because then SATAN can get in there and trick them! Better to stay ignorant than to think you can figure it all out by yourself.

    But that’s not really what science is about. Yes, you do get to figure stuff out, and it’s really, gloriously exciting, but if you’re doing it right, then you know damn well you might turn out to be wrong. It’s a process of continual doubt, not continual certainty. Many of the superstitious (whether religious or not) are fearful of that sort of doubt, and see it as evidence that not only is science arrogant, but it doesn’t even work. Why trust in something that makes you question everything? It seems terribly nihilistic to them. But they aren’t seeing the sheer glorious beauty of discovery, or the agonizing, breathtaking splendor of all the intricate patterns of the Universe; far from nihilistic, it shows that there are vaster, more splendid meanings than we can even comprehend. And you can certainly have hope within that framework. You will even be more likely to find something true than if you simply cleave to some scripture somewhere, because it is very rare that a scripture even attempts to explain everything except on an extremely abstract level.

    I’ve always been most stirred towards both skepticism and science in general by hearing the glowing descriptions of what *is*.

    That’s not to say there isn’t a place for bluntly pointing out when people are wrong. There most certainly is. All ideas deserve a fair hearing, and that means that people get to point out when an idea is bollocks. And sometimes, especially if the other side is dishonest, a more insolent tack is called for. But in general, be kind to others. Not necessarily to their ideas, but to the people themselves. Don’t just tell them why they’re wrong. Tell them when they’re right (positive reinforcement) and show them the glorious things that made you fall in love with science.

  49. MoonShark

    @Somite (45): I like that. Also, obligatory xkcd.

  50. Paul

    Of course that person was Carl Sagan. What the skeptical movement needs is more like Carl Sagan and much less vitriol overall.

    Oh, the guy that referred to “weak-minded theologians” in The Demon-Haunted World and in Cosmos said that to pose a creator god was lacking in intellectual courage? There’s some vitriol for ya.

  51. No never been a dick here, been completely nice to everyone. :whistle

  52. Bill

    This is a great talk. We need to remember not to be a dick in all that we do–debating science v. belief, debating the merits of a legislative proposal, being a driver on the road. It’s difficult to do this consistently, but Phil is right. No one changes his or her mind because of some dickery.

    Many of my brother and sister lawyers could learn a lot from this message.

  53. Happy Camper


    Yea, but he said it in a nice way. :)

  54. Happy Camper

    Write as if you are writing a letter to the editor in order to get it published in your local paper.

  55. Chaos

    That´s the worst you can say about Sagan? In that case he´s way nicer than 99% of everything written on the whole religion issue.

  56. MoonShark

    People still read letters to local paper editors? AND that’s a good way to get noticed? (Or is this open conjecture hour?)

  57. @Paul:
    Yes, he did say it in a nice way. He wasn’t on top of a rock yelling down at a congregation. How else would that statement be worded? He could have said “idiotic dumb@sses”. That’s not very nice though…

    We need more Sagans.

  58. Gary

    You do seem more circumspect lately, so apology accepted…. just keep the self-monitor on, though. We have a tendency to return to old habits until better ones replace them.

  59. Phil,

    It’s great to hear your voice, which sounds much like your writing. My wife would call it “Minnesota nice.” You raise important points, do it well, and walk the talk. Good stuff. Thanks.

  60. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    I think that way when the person belittles their opponent, uses obviously inflammatory language, or overly aggressively gets in their face.

    So it is basically a slippery slope argument from being passionate and belittling the opponents position or arguments, not the opponent. But we knew that it is so in this context, and that it is a fallacy, mostly because as stated being passionate works. Statistics of atheism in science and education shows that.

    And it works up to the point of using what some individual feel is “obviously inflammatory language”, which is the default position taken by theists on their opponents when hearing criticism of _any_ kind (even if not on their person).

    As some say, atheists can’t win, in not being persecuted as dicks from time to other. That, for example, shows that accommodationism doesn’t work at the fundamental level, besides being based on a falsehood covered by framing. (A double whammy!) That the argument so often is the slippery slope fallacy makes that so much clearer.

    What we can do is to continue criticism by all means effective. Dickhood should be (likely is) a badge of merit under these circumstances.

  61. Alastair

    Good advice for everyone, not just for secular skeptics (it may surprise many, but much skeptical thought – indeed, some of the most profound skeptical thought – takes place within a religious context).

    In my experience, the people who act like the greatest ‘dicks’ are generally those people who have never undergone or are not open to a complete paradigm shift in their developed thinking. Those of us who have experienced such changes of mind – or conversions – are more likely to appreciate just how demanding and delicate the conditions for the possibility of such changes of mind can be, to recognize the compelling character and internal logic of other ways of viewing the world, and to refuse to place our own way of viewing the world beyond doubt.

    The ‘dicks’ are generally the people with the least plasticity of thought. Their ridicule of others betrays their great lack of sympathy and – more importantly – imagination, which has led to the driving down of the ruts of a particular way of thinking far into their consciousnesses, to the point that it becomes an unchangeable mindset. As soon as someone starts acting like a ‘dick’ you should have good reason to doubt their value as an intellectual guide.

    I think that David Bentley Hart’s description of true skepticism is apposite:

    “But a true skeptic is also someone who understands that an attitude of critical suspicion is quite different from the glib abandonment of one vision of absolute truth for another—say, fundamentalist Christianity for fundamentalist materialism or something vaguely and inaccurately called “humanism.” Hume, for instance, never traded one dogmatism for another, or one facile certitude for another. He understood how radical were the implications of the skepticism he recommended, and how they struck at the foundations not only of unthinking faith, but of proud rationality as well.”

    Such skepticism is content to lash out at the intellectual deficits of other parties, while failing to explore the deep, profound and frequently terrifying implications of such skepticism for the understanding of human nature and the world. The greatest skeptic will be known, not by how cutting he is in attacking the pseudo-rationality of others, but by the profundity of the questions that he asks of himself.

  62. Happy Camper


    No,” AS IF” you were writing a letter to the editor. “As if” your name and address were attached to your statements.

    You know, what Phil was talking about scoring the quick gotcha and loosing the overall argument. Good writing is fast taking a back seat to the fast remark.

    Like this one. :)

  63. Paul

    He wasn’t on top of a rock yelling down at a congregation.

    Who is, aside from Phelps? Seriously.

    I’m not bad-mouthing Sagan. Great guy, admire him. Dislike how some people pretend he had nary a negative thing to say about religion or practitioners of religion (not accusing people here of that, although trying to contrast Sagan with current blog discussions did set off warning bells).

  64. Jeffersonian

    summing up thousands of words in two
    golden rule

  65. Shaun

    It is all very well to choose your own debating style (and you have better be ready to accept criticism of it too, or is that being a dick also?) but suggesting that other approaches simply never work, and in fact are outright counterproductive, is nothing more than opinion giving and attempting to dominate the debate by defacto. Being nice works best because I say so and it is self-evident and these other nice people agree with me?

    If everyone continues to work in their own way then each will achieve some things and fail to achieve others, their gaps being perhaps filled by other people’s approaches. Im sure that (to describe it dickishly) the outright patronising ‘pretend to empathise with people with regard to opinions you actually find stupid’ method sometimes works, though it is disngenuous and insulting, but sometimes it simply props up and gives respectability to the delusion. It basically says ‘yes it is reasonable to be a (anti-vaxer, global-warming-denier, evolution-denier, apologist-for-priestly-pederasty, etc) but Im sure if we sit down I can explain my point of view and you will begin to see where I am coming from’

    I however maintain that you simply do not care as passionately about the issues on which you primarily call others ‘dicks’ as they do (a dickish thing to do by the way, but seemingly it only counts as dickishness when its aimed at someone you at core disagree with) and that on subjects on which you truly do care passionately you are often as big a dick as anyone.

    However if you intend to remove all harsh criticism, sarcasm, mockery and occasional dickishness from your repertoire then I think you risk losing what made you successful in the first place. People did not start reading Phil Plait because he wrote nice discourses about how nice it would be if everyone was nice. It isnt that interesting.

  66. Arnold Jamtart

    I’ve already had a bit of back-and-forth with Phil about this talk on Twitter (which, it turns out, is a terrible forum for this kind of discussion — who knew?) without having seen it. Seeing it pretty much met my expectations: I enjoy hearing Phil speak, so it was no surprise that I found most of the talk to be decent, but I think Matt Dilahunty’s objections were spot-on — especially with regard to the “poll”.

    I also think that ridicule and insults can be effective in convincing people just as bullying can be effective in establishing a social hierarchy — there’s a reason we do both these things naturally. That’s not to say that we should use either technique indiscriminately (or, for that matter, often), but I think that as long as we are attacking ideas as opposed to people, that approach can be both effective and relatively non-injurious if done carefully.

    And, for what it’s worth, I became committed to the pursuit of truth (i.e.: a sceptic) as a child in part as a means of avoiding ridicule. The kids on the playground who laughed at me for believing in Santa had a net-positive effect on my life, even if the initial experience was tear-inducing. I’m not about to go make fun of preschoolers, myself, but I can attest to its efficacy. 😉

  67. MoonShark

    @Happy Camper: Oh, fair enough then, I agree :) (I didn’t realize you wanted emphasis on “as if”). Let’s note though that people like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins use their real names though, and do put their credibility on the line. If that’s all you’re asking for, cool by me.

  68. Dickhood should be (likely is) a badge of merit under these circumstances.

    Depends on what your goal is. As an atheist myself, I could care less if other people are atheists or not. It’s none of my business. I don’t care if someone believes the Apollo landings were a hoax or not. But I do draw the line at somebody foisting this stuff into the public realm as a basis for public policy which then affects society at large, esp. school kids. In this context, there are no ‘opponents’ — just the question of whether knowledge or belief at the foundation of someone’s recommendation for public policy has any rational basis. I guess George Gamow could call Fred Hoyle a nutter for supporting a steady-state universe but I doubt that appellation alone would do much to convince Hoyle.

  69. Kurt Larson

    Well. Obviously everything he’s saying here is right, but… I think he’s purposely ignoring the deeper point here: People (skeptics, faithers, everyone) are primarily motivated by the desire to be themselves and express themselves. Hoping to “persuade other humans” is a distant second. Sad but true.

  70. abb3w

    Note, however, there are different degrees of “dick”ishness – even within “belittling”. In particular, insult and ridicule are two different things, with different impacts. See (doi:10.1037/0022-0663.73.5.722). Also note, a diverse ecology of approaches may allow for more effective impact than a monoculture.

    Contrariwise, many people recognize on some level that “negative affect” — getting angry, irritated, or upset; see (doi:10.1207/S15324834BASP2502_5) — is a common denial tactic; thus, presenting negative affect increases (in a primitive pseudo-Baysian reasoning) the probability ascribed to the denier holding their position from a random rather than rational basis – and thus, more likely wrong.

    So: “Smile when you say that”.

  71. Mack

    Yeah well, its not like we skeptics have made a history of oppressing people, burning witches at the stake and engaging in an all around rampage of destruction for the past several thousand years-we leave that up to religion. Now that is what you might call being a dick.

  72. Lonny Eachus

    @42 Thank You:

    I suspect that Phil does not realize just how Libertarian was the philosophy of his own speech. I further suspect (but will not claim as fact) that Phil’s knowledge of true Libertarian philosophy is about on par with the average Creationist’s knowledge of evolution. But I admit that I could be wrong, it is only a suspicion. In any case,

    @ Phil:

    Awesome speech. Completely awesome. You could probably make a high 6-figure income doing nothing but traveling the world and delivering that same speech, given some very slight alterations of context and wording for each appearance. Not that I think you would. Just that you could.

    Very well done. Kudos and applause.

  73. John F

    ” I further suspect (but will not claim as fact) that Phil’s knowledge of true Libertarian philosophy is about on par with the average Creationist’s knowledge of evolution. ”

    Personally I suspect that the understanding most self-proclaimed libertarians have with libertarian philosophy is about on par with understanding most self-proclaimed fundamentalist Christians have with Jesus’ philosophy – shockingly little and mostly ill-applied.

  74. Happy Camper


    What I am trying to point out and what Phil was pointing out is the general tone of a discussion. I just happen to agree on Sagans stance on religion, you might not. I just like the calm and reasoned logical approach to discussion.

  75. Karmakin

    The problem with “dickishness” and avoiding such, is that it’s really in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I think people often use tone as a backdoor to fight arguments/information that they simply don’t want to hear. They’re complaining about WHAT you’re saying, not how you’re saying it.

    I think it’s a good thing to not be a dick. But this is not towards the person you are talking to. This is towards any reasonable independent undecided observer who might be watching. Chances are, the person you are debating with is going to think you’re a dick regardless of how you say it. So that means not to take cheap shots or anything like that. But all the same, you really can’t back down with what you’re saying.

    And yes, not backing down with what you’re saying..not what people don’t like about the “new atheists”

  76. Happy Camper


    Glad you mentioned Dawkins. Even though Dawkins and Hitchens have much the same message I think Dawkins comes off as a little less strident and thus somewhat more effective to the general masses. It’s a matter of tone.

    read PZ every day

  77. Phil–I think this is exactly the message that is needed!

    I doubt I would be considered a skeptic by many because of the fact that I do have religious beliefs, but I particularly appreciate that in your follow-up comments here on this blog that you did mention the fact that not all people who believe have any problem with science. For me, it was actually quite shocking to discover as I got older that there WAS “supposed” to be some sort of conflict. Perhaps it was the benefit of growing up with parents who were very free with information and let me take pretty much any book out of the library that I wanted, be it about evolution, religion, or what have you. (Which was a very nice, subtle way of sending the message that there was no need to mistrust science…not beating me over the head, but letting me figure it out for myself.)

    I really appreciate your message because this is the same thing I’ve been trying to get across in my own fledgling blog, except from a Christian perspective. I almost left the church because of people who were…well, NOT very kind or tolerant of those who had different views. In the end I came back because I decided the fact that they missed and/or ignored the fundamental principles didn’t invalidate those principles themselves, and that I would do my best to try and change things. I would say that 3/4 of my blog is given over to pointing out ways that we Christians can be “dicks.”

    That said, when someone DOES hold moderate beliefs as I do, it’s very easy to feel that one has NO allies whatsoever–and I do think that one thing that holds some moderate Christians (and other believers) back from openly stating their beliefs as I do is the fact that just being believers is enough to get them flamed by some atheists, and that if they stick their necks out too far, then the people they may have relied upon to defend them (i.e. hardliners/fundamentalists) will turn against them as well, leaving them trying to fend off attacks from all sides at once.

    As for me, I’ve decided that I’ll say what I want, when I know it’s true, and that I don’t care if it’s going to cause people to say that I’m “taking the atheist side” just because I happen to acknowledge the role science plays in understanding the material world. But to my mind, the constant “being a dick” on both sides just furthers the idea that there needs to be this split or rivalry where to my mind none exists, and it keeps people form being able to sit down and have an honest discussion and discover that there are some people of different beliefs that they have far more in common with than they think. And fundamentalism won’t stop, I don’t think, until moderates no longer have to feel like they have no support whatsoever no matter where they turn.

  78. Nervous? Don’t sell yourself short. I thought you stated your case extremely well. Very interesting. I recommend David Denby’s recent book “Snark” for an intelligent take on the particular type of rudeness that permeates our times. As for Hitchens, as much as I was pleasantly surprised by his book “God Is Not Great,” I’m also old enough to remember his sophomoric praise of Trotsky and all those other trendy two-bit tyrants that were so popular in his set back in the day. Ah well, I wish him all the best.

  79. For the most part I completely agree with what you said Phil, and I too have cringed when reading some of the more disparaging blog posts from various sources. However I guess I fall into the ‘being a dick has it’s place’ category. There comes a point where you’ve calmly and rationally pointed out the fallacies in an argument, where you’ve presented the evidence over and over, and there is simply nowhere else to go and nothing else to say. Sometimes you have a choice of just walking away and leaving it, or being a dick. If the other party can also walk away then it’s probably for the best. But when the other party continues to beat on and on about the same stuff that you have debunked ad infinitum (think Ray Comfort, Ken Ham, and Kent Hovind) then I think being a dick is the way to go.

  80. Aaron

    So I don’t think directly insulting an individual is a great strategy in general for converting that person at that instant. However, I don’t think “dickishness” is a strategy without merit. It reminds me of attack ads in politics, everybody talks about how much they hate them, everybody says they want to hear substance and positive messages, yet campaigns keep going negative. Either they’re all very wrong or dickishness can work.

    Going negative does two things, 1) it makes the message very clear, ie there’s no ambiguity that you consider X to be a bunch of BS, and 2) it removes some of the veneer of respectability so that others can ask critical questions.

    Among well known skeptics/atheists I suspect that three of the greater examples of dickishness would be PZ Myers and the cracker incident, Hitchens in general, and events such as blasphemy day. I suspect that very few people have become atheists because of these examples. But they all made a media splash, making people aware of the fact that atheists exist and that it is possible to question religion. This is where the polite skeptic has the chance to step in and help them the rest of the way.

  81. Daniel J. Andrews

    The decision to be a dick depends on what you want to accomplish. If you want to get people to think skeptically, to examine their assumptions, to challenge their beliefs, then being a dick is counterproductive. In some instances this may have health consequences–e.g. your being a dick turns off someone who may be misled but have an open mind on the vaccine issue. But it does seem rather silly to bemoan the fact that so many people are poor critical thinkers while the dick persona may contribute to that problem.

    If you want to let loose with a good rant, make yourself feel better, say something outrageous to get the dittoheads applauding and boost your blog ratings, or just rip into someone you know will never ever change their minds (e.g. Jenny, Mike Adams, etc), then I suppose being a dick is called for. But go for selective targeting, not carpet bombing.

    From experience (n=1 i.e. anecdote), I ignored people who were dicks about what I believed at the time. Often they’d get the basics wrong, erect strawmen, set up caricatures, and attack them (sort of like PZ still occasionally does). My reasoning was, “If they can’t even get the basics right, and if they can’t present an argument without logical fallacies, why should I trust them on the matters I don’t understand?” [yes, I now recognize that my reasoning was also logically faulty–I love the smell of irony in the morning].

    My “Sokath, his eyes uncovered” moment came from Sky and Telescope magazine. Stars were being born. The universe wasn’t static after all, and probably not a few thousand years old either. It took some years after that, but that was my first step.

    Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker was my watershed moment–it answered most of my remaining objections. If he’d been a dick in that book, I may not have read it long enough to get what I did out of it, and that would have been a pity.

    Along my journey most people I met were not dicks. To them I also owe thanks because even if they didn’t convince me right then, they also didn’t engage in warfare.

    Even after all that though, I sometimes struggle with being a dick myself. Or at least snarky at times. Sorry. I will try to do better even when confronted by absolute antiscience politicized idiocy on the very important topic of …. :)

  82. self-promo here for my song “how 2 b cool” (chorus: how to be cool, how not to be a dick) –

  83. Sean

    Bravo, well said, and positive reinforcement to you taking risks! Wish I could have seen it in person. Thanks for speaking up. Compassion FTW!

  84. @46 Skepvic, definitely going to read that when I get a chance!

    @62 Shaun, @31 Moonshark
    I too would be interested to be pointed to more scholarly work on dickishness and related strategies. In my gut, I feel being nice works better in the public arena, and I know it works better on me, and for me, personally, based on my personality and experience. But as for whether it can be a successful component of a winning side of a public debate, we need data!

    After all, political parties get this already. They spend millions fine-tuning their message through polling, studies, focus groups, etc. (see Rove et al., 2000, 2004; Axelrod et al., 2008)—and when they stay on message, it seems to work for them. In some ways, it’s a bummer to say we ought to be more like political parties, but if that’s what it takes to win the public debate…

  85. Dave in Texas

    OK – after watching two times, I can’t see where your message is unclear. It’s very clear, and that is you can’t deal with antiscience people by lowing yourself to their level.

    Let them lose it, let them become unhinged, and deal with their beliefs by asking “Why?” enough times their argument dissolves into a puff of illogical smoke.

    Critical thinking can’t be equated with being a dick.

  86. Shaun

    I would like to ask if you think that the ‘moderate’ (albeit sometimes self-described moderate) voices, that currently do get at least a reasonably wide hearing and coverage, would be doing so if those who were prepared to go a little further had not done so?

    With reference to discussion of religion, it would be hard I think to refute a claim that Richard Dawkins specifically (in my english based context), and a number of others generally, brought the subject out of the churches and philosophy departments to the dinner table of everyday homes, to the bar of pubs, to the workplace lunchroom. Everyone has an opinion on this and on these people, and that was simply not true 10 years ago. They also brought it from the 2am ‘polite chaps discuss boring things in cardigans’ slots on television to the primetime and to bestseller shelves (not just their own books but everyone elses).

    Provocation has proved to be the tool that DID open the floodgates. It is no use saying ‘it doesnt work’ when it did work. They are now open and people are discussing and reading other views now, but the difference is stark and I think you should give credit where it is due for that, even if their approach is not for you and you may think it is not now necessary.

  87. Being that you spoke at the James Randi conclave, and quite eloquently, I have to wonder one thing about Mr. Randi — Does he realize how respected he is, not only amongst the skeptical community, but also among the community of third-rate Slydini’s such as myself in the magic community, who hold him in the highest regard?

    If you happen to read this and then happen upon Mr. Randi, please let him know that he is held in the highest regard as not only a breath (nay, a gust!) of fresh air in a miasmic world, but as a gentleman and scholar of the first order. And his instructional magic book aimed for the youngsters, “The Magic World of the Amazing Randi,” which I’ve given to many of my friend’s children over the years, is a classic.

  88. @84 Shaun
    I think we’d all agree that provocation is an effective tool, but provocation is not the same as being a dick (although it can certainly include it). I guess I’m one of those who doesn’t find Dawkins to be much of a dick, and I think his provocation-sans-dickishness is one of the keys to his success.

  89. Lonny Eachus

    @73 John F:

    Personally I suspect that the understanding most self-proclaimed libertarians have with libertarian philosophy is about on par with understanding most self-proclaimed fundamentalist Christians have with Jesus’ philosophy – shockingly little and mostly ill-applied.

    I agree on both points, but I do not see where that has much to do with my own statement.

  90. Yeah, I have been converted into being nice. It’s not my instinct but it works better. I am one of the few who have been lead to skepticism by someone picking on me. It worked, I felt embarrassed and made myself work harder to be better and smarter. But I understand this doesn’t work for the majority. In fact, I only think it worked on me because I probably already believed this stuff. Angry Scientologists mocking me wouldn’t make me convert. So, I am a Nice. I don’t like to be a Nice, but it’s effective. I’m not SUPER nice, but I have toned it down quite a bit. I’ve already seen a difference in how my intrapersonal relationships have improved. Boo.

  91. Shaun

    Being nice can be a highly effective ‘front’ in the war on ignorance. I would argue that it just cannot get the job done on its own.

  92. Lei

    I am glad to see this video posted. I think a lot of folks who were not a TAM8 made some assumptions on what Phil said based on the Twitter streams, but once they watch this video they may interpret those tweets differently.

    Some people also may not be aware of [Wil] Wheaton’s Law which is where the actual phrase “don’t be a dick” took on this meaning. Phil was just co-opting that Law.

  93. Brian Too

    In the speech, not a bad definition of being a scientist (perhaps less grandly, being an “engaged skeptic”): Go where the evidence takes you. Take a look at the evidence.

    Much of what we decry is faith. ‘I believe in X because it feels right’.

  94. I’d just like to say thank you for giving this speech! I’m a new Atheist, it’s only been about a year since I officially “came out” about me being an Atheist. My ex-boyfriend has been an Atheist for about ten years now, and I always thought to myself that he was a bit…rude…to believers. I’ve been reading blogs for only about 4 years now, and I’ve ran across a lot of dick head skeptics/Atheists/whatever you would like to call them.

    I know from personal experience how big of a pain it is to deal with them, because when I was a Christian I had some seriously upsetting conversations with several skeptics.

    We need more tact.

  95. well and honestly, many atheists can hold non skeptical beliefs also. Clear thinking in one area does not carry over always. UFOs and aliens have a lot of atheist believers because they PROVE there is no God. It was aliens. All that Bible stuff. And the pyramid stuff.

    eh…whatever, if I”m nice and they come to TAM, it’s a win!

  96. My experience having once been religious and having converted people over to said religion is that screaming burning damnation at them was significantly less effective than say, cookies. Okay, I’m only half serious about the cookies. But, the basic principle is the same. I liked to commiserate with people, because I did and still do genuinely like them. Even if they do get on my nerves occasionally. Point is, you have to get people to like you on an irrational level before they’ll listen to you on a rational level. You have no credibility as a random stranger, you always have some as a fellow camper, biker, gamer, Wikipedian, etc. etc. etc. Is it irrational of them to need you to have this credibility? Of course it is. But you don’t stand at a locked door and demand it open on principle. Sometimes you have to reach for the thief’s tools.

    Also, as a general rule, accusing people of being rapists in an argument is poor form.

  97. Lisa


    You made me cry at TAM and I’m crying again as I watch your speech for the second time.
    Thank you again.

  98. I loved the video.
    We need more people speaking up on this aspect of debating.

    It’s easy to get high and mighty when you are confident of the validity and logic of your position but if your goal is to get people to think about the idea you’re presenting, it’s the worst thing you can do.

    We could all have a bit more empathy for the other side. Not everyone holds on to certain beliefs for malevolent or sinister reasons.

  99. Monkey

    I think that there is a time and a place for all tactics of skepticism. I agree completely that being a “dick” is not the most accurate way to convince people. But, sometimes you gotta call a spade a spade.

    I think a gradient of reactions is most productive. Sylvia Brown – call a dick a dick. Sylvia Browns audience – spell out the rational reason for why you are inclinded to believe opposite to them. Debating the creationist at a dinner gathering for your uncles 75th birthday – gently and with professional care to the details and the evidence. Debating acreationist as they stand in front of your elementary school with placards stating that your geology teacher is a liar – venom. As long as your main points are evidence, not personal attacks or childish and underhanded commentary (as long as your side always is guided by the winds of evidence and on the tact of truth) you will be the victor in the eyes of those watching.

    For those who define Dawkins or Hitchens actions or words as being a “dick”, well…I totally disagree. I think their style is needed more than ever. But so is the oposite side.

  100. Realisticmom

    I agree with what you’re saying. I’ve found over and over again that the best offensive strategy is to go into a discussion validating the other person’s feelings and worth even if their opinion is totally off the wall. Like “It’s really important to me too that kids are protected from environmental factors that could cause autism,” or even “I can’t imagine the struggles of having to try to advocate for a child with autism. I think if it were me I’d be super pissed off and want someone to blame and concrete answers.” Then gently go into the ” … so in my studies of autism I have found scientific evidence showing there is no link between vaccines and autism … blah blah blah … it would be so empowering to focus on x-y-z studies which could help your child and let’s put this anger to good use as motivation to be proacive.”

    Of course, there will always be wingnuts who will still get back up in my face about how I’m brainwashed by the liberal elite media that is going to take over the world with our Muslim president who is secretly in cohoots with Al-Quaeda and a bunch of space aliens who hate freedom. I just ignore them because there is no way to have a discussion with them anyway. They don’t want to have a discussion – they want an audience to their craziness. Just like the people who flamed you about your “don’t be a dick” talk. You can try to explain to them what you’re really trying to say, but they won’t hear you. They just want to be dicks. Even if it is in response to a “don’t be a dick” talk. Oh the irony. The painful painful irony of humans.

  101. For those who define Dawkins or Hitchens actions or words as being a “dick”, well…I totally disagree.

    You say that like this is a very objective determination. Often times however, we lack necessary information to decide that someone is in fact being crass and obtuse. Take Hitchens for example, the reasons I have a low opinion of him have a great deal more to do with his obvious and extremely erroneous statements and actions vis-a-vis the Middle East. Many skeptics, however, are not necessarily as familiar with these actions and statements, or would not understand their significance. For example, Hitchens did once write about the supposed Jewish practice of sex through a hole in a sheet very credulously, but this was actually the remnant of an old antisemitic attitude and does not exist in reality. Does this make him careless jerk, as opposed to a researcher who made an error? I think that determination differs depending on the person observing it. Try not to get too hung up on this particular example, as I heard about it second hand. True or not, the point is only to show that standards differ from person to person. In other words, the age old rule of communication always applies: Know your audience.

  102. MrPeach

    Yeah Phil, don’t be a klepto – give Wil Wheaton his props!
    Posted on: Fri, Mar 7 2008:

  103. TheBlackCat

    @ Phil: I’ve been following you for close to a decade now, you are the person who single-handedly got me involved in skepticism. However, I was not impressed with your speech. I was not surprised by it, you said pretty much exactly what I thought you would based on your earlier discussion, but I don’t think it really helps all that much. And the reason is not because your message is wrong per-say. The problem is that it lacks enough specifics for anyone to actually be able to act on it.

    The problem, as many others have pointed out in the comments already, is that whether someone is a dick or not is very subjective. People will take offense at just about everything. People will take offense just at someone saying they disagree on the issue. We cannot even openly admit that we are skeptics on a particular issue without being perceived as a dick by people.

    For an example close to home, every time you talk about anything not directly related to astronomy you get a flurry of people who think you are being a dick for straying off what they think you blog should be about. It was so bad that you had to make a blog post specifically justifying those posts, and people still do. If we are going to talk about the subjects you say we need to talk about, people are going to think we are dicks. So the question is not whether we should be dicks or not, we can’t avoid it. The question is exactly how much of a dick should we be, and that is a question you make no attempt to answer.

    I also think you are attacking a strawman. You keep talking about people getting in someone face, yelling at them, and calling them a retard/a moron/stupid. Who, exactly, is suggesting we do that? I follow most of the people generally considered to be the most offensive and not only have they not suggested that, they have said explicitly that they think that is a bad approach. This includes people like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins, people who are generally considered the most offensive of the lot.

    If we look at the religious issue, which is where a lot of the discussion on civility seems to be centered nowadays, people are up at arms about how offensive billboards are that don’t even discuss religion, they just point out that non-religious people exist. “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone” is considered a horrible, offensive attack on religion, enough that people walk off their job, that there is vandalism, and that people even get death threats.

    So in the end my problem with your speech is the same problem that a lot of people have in this discussion: a lack of specifics. How far do we have to go to not be offensive? People think that simply saying out loud that we are skeptics is being a dick. How can we operate if we aren’t even allowed to admit we exist, not to mention actually address the argument of others? We have to draw the line somewhere, but it seems there is a great deal of disagreement about where that line belongs, and I don’t think your speech helps clarify the issue at all.

    I find the story at the end somewhat ironic, since you say you think it will work all the time, but Jerry Coyne recent posted a story where a comment I feel is even more mild than yours was taken as extremely offensive by a YEC:

    The comment, specifically, was in his book, Why Evolution is True: “If a designer did have discernible motives when creating species, one of them must surely have been to fool biologists by making organisms look as though they evolved.”

    It is hard to say something less aggressive than that. In fact it is the explicit belief of some creationist. It is far less aggressive than how you describe yourself in the story in my opinion. Yet a girl was furious about that comment. She went so far as to call Dr. Coyne a jerk for saying it. So it doesn’t work all the time.

  104. Monkey

    Yeah, I agree. However, I am speaking of his tactics for skepticism and not his political beliefs. I have heard Hitchins speak at length about his opinions of the Middle East and I feel that they are founded in strong evidence. I would probably disagree with him on most counts, but it is not like he is Glenn Beck the War Promoter.

    anyway, my point was that people condemn Dawkins and Hitchens as crass ideologues who are the “dick” style of communicators of science and skepticism. I jus think that this is totally not true. They are stronly worded, confident and dont take any bulls*it. they call a spade a spade and I appreciate that. I think it is needed. But, like you said, not always. Know your audience.

  105. Brycemeister

    ‘Converted?’ As someone who usually indicates ‘none of the above’, for Christianity, agnosticism, and athiesm, hey, I have no desire for listening to someone, or talking with someone, who is attempting to convince me of the ‘rightness’ superiority or whatever, of their Point Of View. None at all, no patience whatsoever. A simple ‘I’m an athiest.” And then shut up. If you need to defend your view, well, that’s fine. Defend away.

    But the moment one espouses their views, they assume, automatically, the mantle of teacher, educator-and they haven’t asked for that right. The height of presumption and no small arrogance, that be. Some-but not all, just some, both famous and not so famous, athiests (and yes, sadly, Christians, and more than a few agnostics) haven’t seemed to cotton onto this simple unspoken social rule. It’s read as positioning oneself in the pecking order, and the one you’re trying to ‘educate’, goes into defensive mode. C’mon-The Darwinists, and allegedly rational athiests should know that much, at least.

    I don’t want to hear your views. This is why I completely dig the late great Carl Sagan. By all accounts, just a really nice guy, and athiest? Oh yes, but of course! But never in his shows, or any of the many interviews I’ve watched, does he stridently put forth his POV. If anything, he was like a big kid-“the universe is just so cool!” And he became famous for presenting it well. This new crop, on the other hand, just don’t seem to get that.

    They don’t seem to get a lot of things. If I’m accosted, my response is usually “So? What do you got to offer? Hey, Catholic Church? Buy your way to heaven-couple Hail Mary’s, guilt absolved. Buddhism? Escape! Even the Presbyterians and Protestants have just a ‘be real good’ kinda ethic going. But you guys? There’s nothing after death, no free will, mind is an illusion (dang. There goes the rudder.). To me that says…nothing. Morals? Nope, can’t offer that. Sorry guys-aint got no mind, controlled by externalities, morals can’t be had. And nothing else. Oh, well, it’s a…better, more rational way of thinking. It’ll make you more realistic, balanced. Yeah, but outside of athiest camps, and some public speakers-nope, still nothing. You got nothing, and you’re trying to convince me of…what?” At which point, the usual stuff is trotted out, none of which works, because you’re trying to educate me, and my primitive ape instincts read it as positioning.

    Ya’ll aint gonna get nowhere. Oh, and many Liberal Christians have actual training sessions, where they teach the soft sell method. Interesting. Also-Hitchens? This idiot figures out that waterboarding is a torture after all, when fear of drowning is a basic human instinct, and well, everybody else knows it’s torure, and has known for many years, if not centuries? That, and of course he doesn’t want your sympathy, he wants your attention. He wants to chemo, or die, on the big stage, in front of everybody. That’s why he’s running around all skinhead, on talk shows and such. It’s all he’s ever done. There are more than a few athiests I like, Bertrand Russell, to name but one, and some religious types-Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit Priest, for his Omega Point Theory.

    All the athiests I like, tend, to some degree, to try and not bother people with silly notions of what it all is. ‘It’s’ all around us, and we shall deal with it very well without your speechifyin’ and carryin’ on.

  106. Eric

    Phil, please, the term “deniers” in reference to AGW has always been understood to be analogy to those who deny the Holocaust. Too bad for people who make that connection? That’s simply patronizing…and you’ve never worn that behavior well (even when going after the anti-vaccers).

    Now if you simply don’t care, that’s fine…but most people using the deniers moniker really do come off as dicks to those who have any skepticism of the subject.

    Just thought it might help for you to understand that too.

  107. DLC

    Some people make taking offense their modus operandi, and so will take offense no matter what you say or how you say it.
    Second, sometimes derision is the proper response. If someone is putting forth a completely insane idea as if it were accepted fact, their idea deserves to be scoffed at, and if they take offense, so be it.

  108. felix

    Please leave behind the us vs. them mentality. You’re trying to convince people? Don’t polarize them. We’re all in this one together.

  109. TheBlackCat

    I don’t want to hear your views. This is why I completely dig the late great Carl Sagan. By all accounts, just a really nice guy, and athiest? Oh yes, but of course! But never in his shows, or any of the many interviews I’ve watched, does he stridently put forth his POV. If anything, he was like a big kid-”the universe is just so cool!” And he became famous for presenting it well. This new crop, on the other hand, just don’t seem to get that.

    I guess you never read The Demon Haunted World. I had my dad read it, he was deeply offended by Sagan’s coverage of religion in that book. At least he was at the time, he’s essentially an atheist now. I would also suggest you read Sagan’s introduction to James Randi’s “The Faith Healers”. He doesn’t pull any punches there, it is full of words like “bilked”, “fraud”, “bunko”, “cruelty”, and “lies”.

    “But we cannot have science in bits and pieces, applying where we feel safe and ignoring it where we feel threatened. That was lies hypocrisy, self-deception, and a dangerously constrained future.”
    -Carl Sagan

    “It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. “Credulity kills””
    -Carl Sagan

    “Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science? ”
    -Carl Sagan

    “Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who pretend to nonexistent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centered on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition. They avoid rather than confront the world.”
    -Carl Sagan

  110. @Eric

    We keep hearing this “AGW deniers ~ Holocaust deniers”. Do you want to find out something new? AGW deniers are the only people who believe this to be what is actually meant. I think it’s just a cheap way to say you don’t want to be called deniers. I’d be more sympathetic to the request if it were an actual request, and it didn’t make the unfair presumption of bad faith on my part thankyouverymuch.

  111. Aussie Jedi

    “We often refuse to accept an idea merely because the tone of voice in which it has been expressed is unsympathetic to us.”–[Friedrich Nietzsche]

  112. romy

    While your talk has merit, the fact is that many seek out the skeptic community for the feeling of superiority it gives them, and as long as this is the case, there will always be a jeering tone to the communications of many skeptics, even prominent ones.

    There is no way that a well spoken rational argument can effect real change on anyone who has a deep seated need to look down on other people. I have watched youtube videos of both Hitchens and Dawkins. To call what these men do rational or reasoned is ridiculous. Both are excellent speakers, but they appeal as much to emotions as any tent revival minister. Their attitude seems to be: I am superior, and anyone who doesn’t agree is inferior.

    There are many ways in which their arguments fall apart. Dawkins, for example, holds all Christians responsible for the actions of all who call themselves Christians, even fringe loonies. He does this again and again. It would be fair then, to hold all scientists responsible for the actions of all who call themselves scientists, including pseudo scientists, but he never does this. Of course not. A glaring double standard, on a reasonable level, and yet no one ever calls him on this. An effective rhetorical appeal to emotion, but not a reasonable argument.

    Hitchens acts as if religion is destructive, and science is the answer to everything. He lists (rightly) all sorts of ways that religion causes harm, and fails to apply the same standard to science, when it is obvious that the fruits of scientific discovery have the potential to be a million times more damaging than religious practices. This is completely self evident. The military gets the first crack at any scientific discovery, and business the second. Hello environmental catastrophe, brought to you by the business community, not religion.

    I think it would be much more effective for skeptics such as yourself to try to influence men like these, prominent men who set the tone of things and appeal to the childish need to feel superior, than to lecture everyday people. As long as men like these set the tone, it will remain childish and jeering.

  113. Samuel L.


    Your comment echoes those Carl Sagan once made, as evidenced by the following quotes (and he doesn’t mince words either when it comes to a certain attitude he denounces):

    “…The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them — the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to permanent minority status.” – Carl Sagan

    “People are not stupid. They believe things for reasons. The last way for skeptics to get the attention of bright, curious, intelligent people is to belittle or condescend or to show arrogance toward their beliefs.” – Carl Sagan

    “The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge, and there’s no place for it in the endeavor of science.” – Carl Sagan

    Sound advice from The Man himself, don’t you think?

  114. MoonShark

    A Short Review, by the MoonShark.
    I watched carefully and took notes!

    Bottom Line: This talk is like grilled chicken that gets your hopes up because you just know it’s juicy and flavorful inside, if only you can get past the charred and bitter exterior.

    What Was Wrong: The strawman setup, poisoned well, and (self-aware) reliance on anecdote didn’t help a talk that was allegedly about audience palate.

    What Was So, So Right: Honest storytelling from an experienced skeptic, and potential groundwork for a rubric by which to assess skeptic strategies.
    1. Form and adhere to a clear goal.
    2. Assess the odds realistically.
    3. Acknowledge the surroundings.
    4. Pick battles wisely.
    5. Use diplomacy.
    6. Be efficient.
    7. Don’t overreact.
    8. Be prepared to make sacrifice moves.
    9. Expect delayed gratification.
    10. Be persistent.
    11. Remember: communication is shared humanity.

    Choice Quote:

    This message we’re trying to convey is hard all by its lonesome. And it’s even worse when we’re trying to peddle this idea, when you think about what we’re actually saying: of no magic, no afterlife, no higher moral authoritative father figure, no security, and no happy ever after. Okay, this is a tough sell.

    What’s Still Missing: Full reconciliation of that quote , the process above, public policy, and hard psychology… if it’s all possible.

  115. One of the depressing issues on this topic is that there is a lot of speculation and guess work, a lot of anecdotes, ad hoc justifications and reluctance to specify goals or terms. For many beliefs, this would be much par for the course. Yet skeptics pride themselves on logic, internal consistency, well articulated definitions and, significantly, an evaluation of the supporting evidence. When it comes to communication, it is strangely absent, and many rationalists adopt a manner of justification more befitting of those of faith than of science.

    I attempted to outline a way of addressing this matter here with a foundation of evidence and definition:, if anybody is interested. It’s not the final word, by any means, but if skeptics wish to discuss matters of effective communication, they’d do well to treat it as any other claim and put forward more than anecdotes and blind guesses.

  116. Dark Jaguar

    I would really like it if you listed some examples though. Just “don’t be a dick” doesn’t really explain anything. For example, as Phil put it himself, I really don’t know ANY skeptics that go around shouting and insulting believers to their face as a method of debate. Maybe there’s a lot of that in comment threads I suppose… Still, I’d like to know what you consider being a dick. Some things are clearly dickish to everyone, but a lot is just grey area.

    For example, among some of my friends, someone can make a particularly uninformed comment (myself included) and someone else will feel free to point out the flaw via humor, such as by exaggerating something to a ridiculous conclusion Colbert style, and we all get a good laugh and go on. However, I have a couple of family members for whom the exact same thing is considered extremely rude. These same family members tend to consider ANY attempt to debate them as rude mind you, making it entirely impossible to get into any discussion with them without anger being the result. “Agree or shut up” is the rule. Others, not so much. The line is a huge moving point between the two groups. Am I a dick amongst other dicks who just doesn’t get it, or is the 2nd group the dicks for refusing open debate? It’s hard to say, I’ve just had to learn to treat the two differently.

    Your lesson is nice, but it’s not at all clearly defined, or as far as I can tell, needed.

  117. Mickey Mortimer

    With so much quoting of Carl Sagan here, I think we should ask the question of whether his method actually worked. We all agree he was great, but did his gentle and less direct form of criticism result in anything like what the New Atheists have accomplished? If not, maybe it’s not very useful taking his advice on the matter.

  118. slw

    There is quite a simple rule of thumb: if you want people who don’t share your views to take you seriously, look at what Christopher Hitchens does, then try to avoid doing all of that.

    Being stubborn and patronizing is far more likely to reinforce the other side’s views, since (s)he feels like (s)he is under attack and goes defensive.

  119. MoonShark

    I really don’t know ANY skeptics that go around shouting and insulting believers to their face as a method of debate.

    I’ve only heard of two groups of atheists who (with possibly more anti-religious motivation than political motivation) have been so brash.

    1. Church-burning black-metal psychopaths like Varg Vikernes. Definite willingness to adopt other crazy beliefs (Norse paganism, Satanism, even Nazism).

    2. The (totally mild by comparison) Rational Response Squad who I believe at one point were leaving DVDs on church doorsteps. They seem to have adopted some rules now though (at least for their forum) which could probably be summarized as “don’t be a dick” 😉

    So 1. is a paroled felon and his peers are mostly long-disbanded, and 2. probably doesn’t fit the criteria anymore (if they ever did). That leaves basically nobody, AFAIK.

  120. ggremlin

    There are three things common to all people, we all come into the world in the same way, we will all leave the world and we all have core beliefs that we will defend.

    These beliefs will change over time in a process that will make glaciers look like race cars, but change they will.

    You will not get is someone to change these beliefs overnight by a brief and hopefully civil conversation, but a little melting may start. On the otherside, you don’t get anywhere by insulting someone with name calling, you just engage the flight or fight instinct to a level yet to be determined.

    Start the conversation with a truism like above, most people will at least agree with it. A point of agreement is always a great starting point.

  121. Jason A.


    being a dick not only usually doesn’t work, it almost always works against the bigger goal of swaying the most people we can.

    [citation needed]

    People have been asking for the evidence to support this claim for a year or so now, and all we ever get is ‘it’s obvious’.
    Well it’s not obvious to me that people will change their minds without being challenged to do so. If being a dick makes someone go do their research to try and prove you wrong, then you’ve educated them. They probably won’t admit to it, but the seeds are planted.

    I did not say we should back down when confronted. I did not say we should be weak against ignorance. I did not say we shouldn’t be angry. I did not say we should be passionless.
    In fact, I argued the exact opposite. We need our anger, or strength, and our passion.

    I’m not sure what your point actually is, then. That we can be angry and even use insults, as long as we don’t spit on them and call their mother a whore? Okay, fine. Who was doing that anyway?
    The problem is there is a great number of people who will take even the most benign challenge to their core beliefs as ‘being a dick’. So what, you can’t say anything to those people at all? Who get’s to decide what constitutes ‘being a dick’?
    This whole ‘being a dick’ debate is a waste of time. People are diverse and we need a diversity of approaches.

  122. Listrade

    This would all be great if there actually was a swarm of atheist dicks out there sticking fingers in the faces of the faithful and calling them idiots. What examples do we have? Blog posts by PZ, Jerry, Ophelia? Comments sections? Forums? Books by Dawkins and Hitchens? Hardly a mass movement is it? Hardly atheists going all Kick Ass. Let’s not confuse this with these people suddenly jumping on the backs of people in the local supermarket because they’re wearing a crucifix. If there’s anything we know from the internet (and those who write professionally) is that it’s easy to be someone wholly different behind a keyboard and a blank page. Don’t confuse that with people in the real world. Except Hitchens, I can see him jumping on someone’s back in a supermarket.

    It doesn’t matter how the message is put across someone will always be offended, the very nature of what is being communicated is that they are wrong, have been wrong for a long time and have been deluding themselves for all that time. It doesn’t matter how you frame it, how much you accommodate their views, how much tea and victoria sponge you present them with, someone will find something offensive about what is said. As the great Homer said, “You don’t win friends with salad.”

    The bit where accommodating loses me is that it’s a special technique only for those of faith. I mean, Moon Hoaxers, AGW Deniers, Anti-vaxers, Psychics, it’s ok to be dicks to them right? That’s different, right? Well, how so? What’s so special about a religion that it means we have to bite our tongue and give more respect that we do to other forms of irrational stuff? Are the evangelical faith healers any less a rip off and exploitation than psychics? If you’re so gifted go down to A&E or ICU and put that healing to good use, not put up a tent and ask for donations to “god”. Is the practice of stoning women for adulatory any less harmful than Anti-vaxers? Well what about the “power of prayer”? Basically it’s all the same crap, except we’re supposed to accommodate them because they hang this belief on the back of a god rather than a spirit guide or CIA conspiracy.

    So do we frame it for everyone? Rather than calling Anti-Vaxers child murdering scum, do we say, “I can see where you’re coming from, I accept your views and even though your actions now mean my child has an even greater chance of dying than I did growing up, we can still be friends.” Don’t think so.

    Overall point: we overestimate the scale of what dickish behaviour is going on, or at least fail to give examples that aren’t created by sock puppets and we make things worse by making a special case out of religion over all other irrational beliefs.

    As for religious moderates, I just don’t buy that there are any, or at least that there can be. If you don’t believe in the creation of the Earth, man and everything by God then you can’t claim to be of that faith. If you don’t believe in the resurrection, then you can’t be a Christian. There’s nothing to be moderate about, it’s all or nothing.

  123. D^2

    I remember making these same points to Randi and Bob Park at a American Physics Society meeting (the “March Meeting”) about 10 years ago. They rolled their eyes at me. It’s heartening to see that you’re not following in those footsteps.

    One of my colleagues at the university I teach at is a cosmologist, and also a practicing Christian. Whenever I’m about to make a cutting point with a believer, I always have to stop myself and ask, “What would Jodi think?”. I can’t understand why she so strongly believes in the mythology she ascribes to, but I’ve come to realize that, most of the time, a scientist’s personal beliefs really aren’t all that relevant to scientific work, and in some cases may motivate discovery.

  124. Richard L

    Ok, so I have another ‘converted by condescending remarks’ story:

    When I was 5 or 6 a pastor of sorts told me about the doctrine of hell. I had nightmares about this from time to time – standard stuff like burning all over my body and snakes crawling out of my eyes. This, of course, was not fun but I kept the dreams to myself until I was about 8 or 9 when I told a friend about them. He just laughed at me and my silly dreams. The following night I had trouble sleeping and thought about why he would laugh at me like that. I concluded that I must be wrong about hell.

    Remarkable is the continuation: this friend and I had a lot of discussions on religion when we got older. I had become an atheist at the same time that he went to confirmation. Though that story is quite unrelated to my previous conversion story so I’ll just stop here.

    I might be a special case – I am sort of an idiot (or perhaps I just like to think of myself as one, I don’t know {due to my idiocy!?}) – but I don’t like being wrong. So if someone laughs at me, I’ll just have to think things over. Again, I’m an idiot, it might still take some hours for me to change my mind.

    On this entire talk.
    It lacks one important aspect: data. Especially data for the claim that condescension does not help.

    How many condescending remarks have not changed people’s minds? How many ‘normal’ remarks have not changed people’s minds? I mean, people have had their whole life living in reality and they still claim to fantasy. What is to say that throwing even more reality at them is actually helpful? Isn’t all that matters that we get them to actually open their eyes? No matter if this entails insults or rationality, so long as someone think more deeply about their state of existence a victory is won.

  125. Chris

    @Jason A (121): “being a dick not only usually doesn’t work, it almost always works against the bigger goal of swaying the most people we can.
    [citation needed]
    People have been asking for the evidence to support this claim for a year or so now, and all we ever get is ‘it’s obvious’.”

    Ok, citation:

    “For instance, in a dynamic process tracing experiment, Redlawsk (2002) finds that subjects who were not given a memory-based processing prime came to view their preferred candidate in a mock election more positively after being exposed to negative information about the candidate.”

    It’s not only obvious, it’s empirically supported. I went looking for a different study, found this one. And besides, look into your own experience. Have you ever argued with a fundie? If they scored points off you, did that make you doubt your position?

  126. Steve in Dublin

    I’m with Jason A. and Listrade on this one. The BA doesn’t hold back (much) when it comes to anti-vaxxers, moon hoaxers, AGW denialists, etc. So why should we play the accommodationist card when it comes to religion? Having said that, you must consider what tone/level to pitch at is going to work best with your audience. To wit:

    On his last trip to Ireland, my wife and I took PZ Myers out to dinner. My wife was, as 90% of Irish are, raised as a Catholic. She’s quite liberal, but definitely not into questioning the old church doctrine much. I was raised Catholic too. Went to Catholic primary school, but turned down a free scholarship to Catholic secondary school. I Lapsed shortly thereafter, and outed myself as an atheist only about a year ago. Have probably forgotten more about the bible than most people ever knew in the first place. I was born and raised in NJ, but have been living in Ireland for the past 25 years.

    Now… did PZ and I gang up on the poor wife and have a go at the pedophile priests, etc.? Ample opportunity to do so. No, of course not. The entire evening passed civilly, a bit of light banter concerning religion, but no in-your-face stuff. The subject probably only came up once or twice. Anyone that actually knows PZ also knows that he’s very modest and soft-spoken, even when he’s tearing a new arsehole for a creationist. Dawkins is the same way.

    Had we been out with a gang of the lads, I’m absolutely sure PZ and I would have been a lot more strident. You have to gauge what approach to use based on your audience. Simple as that. Humour always helps too. I try to go that route if at all possible.

  127. Skidoo

    Where are my comments going?! My only point is this:


    It is NOT acceptable shorthand for any old unqualified insult. QUITE the contrary.


  128. All the people who claim Phil relied too heavily on anecdote to point out that ridicule doesn’t work: May I ask why it’s okay for you to use anecdote to claim that it does? I can understand disagreeing, I can’t understand making the leap of logic that implies because Phil doesn’t have enough data, the reverse case is more likely to be true.

    On that note, as a general idea, why is it people are so keen to cling to the idea that ridicule is effective? If they’ve seen it work and have personal anecdotes to attest it, I can understand the position in lieu of actual data, but generally that doesn’t appear to be the case at least at first glance.

    I realize it seems like I’m contradicting myself here, saying that they shouldn’t use anecdote, but then saying “where are all the anecdotes?” It’s actually two separate arguments. The first being that there’s an implication that because Phil is wrong (an idea not yet fully verifiable by evidence) that the opposite is true, and that this is faulty logic because to some extent it relies of making arguments by counterexample where such arguments do not necessarily invalidate the rule. The second statement I’m making is an acknowledgment of the lack of data, and an inference that the low frequency of anecdotes indicates a lack of data for the other position.

  129. Skidoo

    Regarding Plait’s talk:

    “I could go into specifics, but I’m not going to.”

    Full-stop. Later.

  130. Don

    Just — well said, Phil, and dead on.

  131. Listrade

    The Chemist:

    There is no leap of logic to that conclusion. We are told that there are cases of “dickery” but then never given an example. People have used examples of the opposite (though Steve in Dublin’s case was to demonstrate that PZ isn’t a dick). Actual examples that if wanted could be verified, but in the case of those saying dickery goes on we don’t even get that much, just told it does go on.

    I can’t really see anyone saying that there’s anything wrong with saying don’t be a dick, I just doubt there actually is that much of people being dicks going on.

    As Steve shows, PZ on page is wholly different to PZ in person. It’s insulting to presume that he and other are not able to assess a situation and make a judgement as to how to respond. We all can, we all do. I can attend funerals, christenings, weddings and other religious events organised by friends without launching into a tirade about religion and so can everyone tarred by this “being a dick” accusation.

    Don’t confuse the internet with the real world. Don’t confuse books with how a person is away from their writings. Don’t confuse organised debates where you have limited time to make an impact with how a person would respond in all circumstances. That’s what the “dickery” assumption is doing.

    It’s right none of us were “converted” by someone being a dick, but then how many of us were actually confronted with a dick in the first place. Second, and most important, the assumption that the “dicks” are trying to convert anyone is wrong. That’s a myth put out by the religious; that these atheists are out there trying to sell a new religion.

    No one is. None of the referred to commentators are trying to convert anyone, force any ideas on anyone, they’re just trying to stop religion or anti-science forcing its ideas on everyone and causing harm. That’s a big difference. And it’s a big fallacy to be hanging the accommodationist view on in the first place: new atheists aren’t trying to convert anyone, just stop the spread of anti-science and stop it doing harm. They write and speak a certain way in certain situations, but that isn’t indicative of how they are in person or in all circumstances.

  132. Oh and one thing I forgot to add to my more recent comment above:

    I also have to point out that playing by house rules, namely skepticism, saying ridicule doesn’t work is not the burdensome claim. Saying ridcule works is the specific and burdensome claim. In other words, Phil’s ability to prove it doesn’t work is limited compared to the responsibility of others to show that it does. He can certainly argue it causes harm, and may need to present evidence for that, but that’s a different argument with limited overlap. It’s really up to the proponents of ridicule as a persuasive or effective method to demonstrate its effectiveness.


    I think you’re limiting this to Atheism in a way that Phil isn’t. I’ve seen some anti-vax/pro-vax arguments come unglued before in the real world. Also, and this is important, the Internet is the real world, as far as discourse and debate is concerned I think it’s extremely reflective of the real world. It’s not like the people on it aren’t real.

  133. Ian

    Phil, there is truly nothing new under the Sun when you say “I was very clear that anger has its place, that we need to be firm, and that we need to continue the fight.”

    As Pope Gregory the Great said, “Reason opposes evil the more effectively when anger ministers at her side.”

    Or, St John Chrysostom who said, “He who is not angry, whereas he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices, it fosters negligence, and incites not only the wicked but the good to do wrong.”

    Or, St Thomas Aquinas “lack of the passion of anger is also a vice”

    Fancy that.

  134. Chaos

    @#111 The Black Cat:
    I fail to see how those quotes constitute “being a dick”… I mean, as opposed to, for example, Penn Jillette´s (enthusiastically applauded) statement at TAM2, “religious people are mentally ill retards”.

    I think Sagan did it exactly right. He showed people that he empathised, not with their woo and their fallacies, but with the reason why they turn to them. He basically said, “guys, I know why you´re doing this, I know what you want out of this, but I just can´t see how this would ever work. Please allow me to show you something that works better.” As opposed to Penn Jillette´s approach of basically saying, “wow, what kind of ****ing dumb*** **** is this? Do you morons really think you have a clue about anything?”

    There´s also the subtle but notable difference between saying not-so-nice things about, say, Sylvia Browne, and saying the same things about the people who fall for her.

  135. Listrade

    @ The Chemist,

    just how many people are saying ridicule works though? Some are saying it has a place, but then doesn’t Phil say the same thing? The burden of proof though is on the accusation/supposition that people are being dicks in the first place and under what circumstances. We’ve a whole new movement set up on that premise, but little in the way to show it actually is happening.

    My real world comment was linking back to how people are away from their blogs/writings/public speaking. They just are not those people 24/7 and the implication being that they are lacking the ability to gauge an audience or a situation.

    I’m linking it to atheism because that seems to be the only issue the tolerance aspect is linked to. It seems fine to be intolerant of other types of anti-science beliefs, but not when a god is brought in, then we have to “understand” and “frame” for them…except scientologists, voodoo and witchdoctors. So in effect, we are tolerant of the Abrahamic stuff, but none of those kookie weird gods.

    The movement is against anti-science, no matter what the source, no matter whether the motivation is money, politics or religion, it’s all the same to me. None of those groups deserve special treatment, but accommodation only really calls for religion to be special, we can be dicks to AGW deniers all we want.

    The other important aspect is to consider why the likes of Dawkins, PZ, Ophelia Benson, Hitchens, Coyne et al write and speak as they do, why are they so blunt in their communications? Is it because they’re dicks or because they’ve had years of putting up with anti-scientific crap that’s simply not true and seen it doing harm? Like when Buzz did his ultimate response to a Moon Hoaxer and lamped the guy. Just how many years had he had to put up with all that crap and people saying his greatest achievement was a lie? Or is Buzz a dick too?

    Don’t forget, Dawkins etc have worked in their fields for a long time before they became commentators on anti-science, they’ve seen these groups not only lie and cheat around the evidence, but call them liars and cheats, how long before you stop playing nice?

    So it’s back to the first point, just where or who are these people being dicks? Let’s not skirt around the issue, give us the names, give us the examples, give us the circumstances, give us the context. This whole topic/movement has no merit if there just aren’t dicks out there being dicks.

  136. Eidolon

    Ultimately, in a discussion with one of the faithful (religion, anti vax, global warming denier…) you reach a point where you have to say “you are wrong”. Now, you can add all the because after that but you’re done. Evidence, smevidence. Counts for nada. For reasons that often have nothing to do with reason, this individual has decided that their own reality is much more rewarding or comforting than the one most of the world shares.

    Accommodation is a nonsense position when dealing with issues such as creationism vs. evolution or geocentric vs. heliocentric or whatever. If there is no or only weak evidence for a position and robust evidence against it, then it’s O.K. to stop equivocating and make a strong statement that something is or is not correct. Would BA accuse me of being a dick for failing to include Navajo creation stories as a reasonable alternative to our present best research on the Big Bang? If not the Navajo, how about Genesis?

    We’ve done the lab for generations of staying quiet, being nice and polite, trying to shoehorn in viewpoints that are simply 180 degrees from reality. Hasn’t worked yet and not likely to in the future. But those who are not outspoken will get gold stars for playing well with others. BA and others may chose to demonize those who are willing to push back in this culture war by creating the strawman of the beligerent and rude skeptic, but the fact is you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.

    Read Susan Jacoby’s book, “The Age of American Unreason” for an interesting view of how we have arrived at this juncture.

  137. Rob G.

    @ Phil Plait: I have seen you (in my very humble opinion) be a “dick” in your blog on more than one occasion. And, quite frankly, it has changed my views of yourself and the goals of this blog. I still keep an eye out for your blogs which might interest me (generally astronomy related) but for the most part I am very selective about which of your blogs I now read.

  138. Steve in Dublin

    Listrade (#137) and Eidolon (#138):

    This! I have nothing to add that hasn’t been said very well in those two posts already.

  139. Red

    So is our goal to ‘convert’ everyone into a skeptic, or is it more along the lines of suppressing woo-woo ideas and getting them out of mainstream consciousness?

    If your goal is the former, good luck. Because while being a dick doesn’t convert many folks, making the good, logical argument (no matter how passionately or articulately you make it) is only slightly more successful.

    If your goal is the latter, how do you know that being a dick isn’t the more effective way? Phil mentions in the first few minutes of the video that our rhetoric has been declining and becoming more ‘dickish’, implying that it used to be ‘better’ and more to his liking in the past. Assuming that’s the case, how did that kinder gentler skepticism do at converting believers? I’d say not very well. UFO clubs are in greater abundance than they’ve possibly ever been. Homeopathy and crap like the Q-Ray (and it’s new incarnation Phiten) are ubiquitous. For crying out loud, people still buy Airborne!

    For sure, we need to continue to make calm, reasoned arguments and promote facts. The people that can be converted will find us and convert. For the rest of the population, probably a majority of the population, we need to do whatever we can to keep their assaults on reality at bay. If the most effective way to do that is by belittling them and publicly shaming them, how can we- as honest, rational people- shun those tactics?

    Now the real question is how can we determine what the most effective methods really are. If we’re really going to call ourselves people of science, we have to admit we’ve been awfully unscientific when it comes to researching and identifying the most productive ways to reach our goal of furthering science and skepticism.

  140. Pete Jackson

    Phil, what a great reflector you have! Have you ever considered a second career as a Gregorian secondary? :-)

  141. Julie Marton

    Thank you, thank you for highlighting the need for compassionate communication in skepticism.

  142. Jason A.

    Chris #127:

    Ok, citation:

    You’re suggesting that we not disagree with them at all. The study cited did not mention the ‘dickishness’ of the information presented.

    And besides, look into your own experience. Have you ever argued with a fundie? If they scored points off you, did that make you doubt your position?

    Even better, I was a fundie. It was the ‘dicks’ who made me go learn more about evolution (as they understood it) so I could prove them wrong. ‘Backfire effect’, indeed.
    In the short term, yes, those ‘dicks’ made me more intent on supporting my anti-evolution stance. Different story in the long run, since they got me to educate myself.
    The ‘non-dicks’ were important too, since I didn’t make it in one giant leap, but baby steps, and they were the ones who made it ‘okay’ to make each step.
    This is what I’m saying – a diversity of approaches.

  143. Jason A.

    Red #142:

    So is our goal to ‘convert’ everyone into a skeptic, or is it more along the lines of suppressing woo-woo ideas and getting them out of mainstream consciousness?
    If your goal is the former, good luck. Because while being a dick doesn’t convert many folks, making the good, logical argument (no matter how passionately or articulately you make it) is only slightly more successful.
    If your goal is the latter, how do you know that being a dick isn’t the more effective way?

    Exactly. The whole ‘don’t be a dick’ meme hinges on the idea that we want to convert the nutjobs. How about if we just want them to shut the hell up and stop confusing and misleading the people who are still reasonable and reachable?

    And then there are the people who have no ‘conversion’ goal at all, but just want to speak the truth as they see it as plainly as they can.

    For sure, we need to continue to make calm, reasoned arguments and promote facts. The people that can be converted will find us and convert. For the rest of the population, probably a majority of the population, we need to do whatever we can to keep their assaults on reality at bay. If the most effective way to do that is by belittling them and publicly shaming them, how can we- as honest, rational people- shun those tactics?

    A diversity of voices, and people will find the ones that resonate with them.

    And oh yeah, other people have mentioned this, but why is it only religion we’re supposed to treat with kid gloves? Why is it okay to ‘be a dick’ to moon hoaxers, for example?

  144. MoMan

    A delightful discussion! Of course, there is no perfect answer to any of this, but we must talk about it. Fifty years ago a buddy in the army said something to me that I could have found very insulting, namely “God sucks.” Instead I laughed, despite my best efforts, and soon thereafter found the courage to analyze everything I had ever believed. In a short time I had abandoned religion, and then one day I uttered the same phrase to a couple of newbies. One laughed and began the same process that I had recently begun. The other was on the verge of hitting me, foaming at the mouth. So, yes, eye of the beholder may apply.

    Speaking of dicks, one reason my family won’t pay the thousands it takes to attend TAM any more boils down to one man: Jillette Penn. He has been a complete jerk in personal conversations (even though we didn’t disagree on anything) and his foul-mouthed routine in front of my young daughter was just too much. I have brought this up with both Phil and Randi but I think that his celebrityness is seen as such an advantage that no one has the balls to confront him (I do, but he ain’t easy to find) and ask him if he ever thinks he might be doing more harm than good.

  145. Jason A.

    The Chemist #130:

    All the people who claim Phil relied too heavily on anecdote to point out that ridicule doesn’t work: May I ask why it’s okay for you to use anecdote to claim that it does?

    I think it’s more like “There are anecdotes that go both ways, so it’s not a priori obvious that one way is superior to the other. Therefore, we need real evidence.”

  146. Fat Asian Chick in the 2nd Row at TAM

    This was the first TAM I attended and as an outsider, I found your speech to be the best of all the talks at the entire event. It made me proud to be in the room and made the dissatisfying talks worth waiting through.

    Though I’m effectively a skeptic, I actually like to say that I’m an agnostic of everything. I don’t want to be affiliated with the Skeptic community, specifically due to the Dicks. Though there are a few good, honest, open-minded critical thinkers in the bunch, I’m turned off by a large majority of the prominent Skeptic community. There are a lot of assumptive statements and judgmental expectations flying out there, with very little open-mindedness about peoples’ socio-cultural and educational backgrounds. As a sociologist, this frustrates me. As a neutral party, these people sound and act no differently than the people they’re judging. They use the same forms of combative argument, faulty reasoning, and skewed bias, throwing around science they don’t understand in the same way a zealot throws around god.

    Thank you for your speech, for making me not hate being at TAM (it was getting precarious there), and for redeeming not only Skeptics, but people in general.

  147. Fat Asian Chick in the 2nd Row at TAM8

    This was the first TAM I attended and as an outsider, I found your speech to be the best of all the talks at the entire event. It made me proud to be in the room and made the dissatisfying talks worth waiting through.

    Though I’m effectively a skeptic, I actually like to say that I’m an agnostic of everything. I don’t want to be affiliated with the Skeptic community, specifically due to the Dicks. Though there are a few good, honest, open-minded critical thinkers in the bunch, I’m turned off by a large majority of the prominent Skeptic community. There are a lot of assumptive statements and judgmental expectations flying out there, with very little open-mindedness about peoples’ socio-cultural and educational backgrounds. As a sociologist, this frustrates me. As a neutral party, these people sound and act no differently than the people they’re judging. They use the same forms of combative argument, faulty reasoning, and skewed bias, throwing around science they don’t understand in the same way a zealot throws around god.

    Thank you for your speech, for making me not hate being at TAM (it was getting precarious there), and for redeeming not only Skeptics, but people in general.

  148. Great talk! Thanks for sharing!

    When you were talking about teaching people how to catch their own fish, it reminded me of a conversation I recently had with some University students (somewhat nerdy sciences guys) in Leiden. I’m an Apple-guy and in this discussion they were posing the argument that Apple must have some special – nasty – marketing methods which ensure that most Apple-users (especially Mac users) tend to stick to their brand only, again and again. While they – obviously thinking of themselves as more rational than the average mac guy – are much smarter by reasserting their position every X-years, choosing the best features and cheapest product, etc… (the age old debate). I only asked one question: “What do you think is more likely: that the ‘Apple people’ all fell into some singularity that magically prohibits them from buying products from another vendor, or that the great majority is simply very satisfied with a – be it more expensive but markedly – better product?” What I mean to say is that even people who think of themselves as rational, succumb to these irrational explanations when they can’t understand a phenomenon.

    Well, people not understanding science and being skeptical about it’s merits just because of their not being able to understand – they’re simply out of the fold – just like the guys in my example above. And I’m getting more and more convinced that it’s almost impossible to bridge that gap.



  149. Phil:
    I had an occasion last summer at McCormick Observatory to practice what you’re preaching. It was a group night (where a group reserves the Observatory and gets a lecture from a member of CAS, the Charlottesville Astronomical Society, ie. me, the President!) and one of the 2 groups was a group of astrologers.

    Yup, astrologers!

    So I did the old apple-D maneuver on the Mac and made a special copy of my PowerPoint and removed the anti-astrology portion of the talk that I always lead off with. I hated doing this, but it was the only way to NOT alienate a big part of my audience. If I had left the “Astrology has a problem: The precession of the equinoxes!” portion in the presentation, (and had they not stormed out of the room in disgust) they might even have learned something and made their version of ignorance just the tiniest bit more accurate. So since I also wouldn’t want them to be able to claim that their version of astrology is “New and improved!” I was able to redact that part in good conscience. Everybody else gets the original PowerPoint and has a good laugh at the astrological silliness!

  150. Robert Evans

    Thanks Phil — That was well-said. People have emotions as well as reason, and when you prick the emotions, the reason gets lost.
    Bob in Boulder

  151. Benji

    I loved your talk, it was full of balance, and soothing for my heart.

  152. MoonShark

    @Fat Asian Chick (her handle, not my judgment):
    Can you cite a specific case of skeptics being dicks? Like date, location, and ideally names? Online is fine, web archives are full of flamewars.

  153. Fat Asian Chick in the 2nd Row at TAM8

    @MoonShark I’m not sure what citing names, dates, locations would accomplish. But more honestly, I’m not in the mood to go look any of it up. Look for inflammatory tones, snarkiness, pompousness, and calling other opinions “dumb” and you’ll be on the right path. Start with the flamewars, perhaps.

  154. Kali.Amanda

    I have taken to telling people who behave like dicks (whatever side of the aisle they may be representing) that their “aura resembles Florida” – which is just my way of not only calling them dicks, but giant limp ones at that. It doesn’t always work, but after the initial offense, they sometimes laugh at the idea of it as an insult and then we may (not always, I reiterate) resume a more cordial point/counterpoint discussion.

    But I think the bigger problem is that we have, as a culture, come to believe that debate must always degenerate into a circus the likes of a Jerry Springer panel.

    Fanatics of all colors believe that their beliefs and ideals define them, so if anyone comes along and questions the validaity or basic truth of those beliefs or ideals, they feel like it is a personal attack and that, because they were provoked, it gives them the right to lash out with everything but the kitchen sink.

    My arguments tend to take a quantum approach where I break it down to the essence of what they are arguing for, but from left field: beliefs and ideals don’t make you who you are; it *informs* who you are at this precise moment. But information, intelligence, data is dynamic and changes as we grow, as civilization progresses, and reexamining that is a survival skill necessary in the day and age because what you do not know could kill you or harm those you love.

    Frankly, I think I just wear them down with all these tiny considerations that grow exponentially. But a win is a win and I have never been told “don’t be a dick” 😉

  155. Steve in Dublin

    Sorry, but I don’t think you can count flame wars on the web as indicative of skeptics behaving badly. Most times we are severely provoked by so much dumbness being copied-and-pasted from contrarian sites by the scientifically challenged that we eventually lose patience. It’s not the same at all as a face-to-face social situation.

    Or, you get stuff like this from the godbots, perhaps in response to a serious question you are asking them about evolution:

    “You atheists are all going to hell, nyah nyah!

    (quotes chapter and verse from the bible)

    God bless you.”

    How are you supposed to get past that?

  156. Steve in Dublin

    Case in point, from a thread on TMZ a few months ago when Kirk Cameron was distributing his adulterated copies of On the Origin of Species on campus. All these idiots seem to have are long-ago debunked straw men (points from original post indented, my words in italics):

    You’re just repeating standard creationist misconceptions and straw men that have been refuted over and over again. What you are doing even has an infamous label: it’s called the ‘Gish Gallop’. It takes much longer for scientists to explain the fallacies behind what you are saying than it takes for you to spit them out. It’s really tiresome, and is the reason why scientists don’t like to ‘debate’ creationists. Anyway, let’s try to sort through this mess you have trotted out one misconception at a time…

    Where exactly is the science in evolution?

    You can’t be serious. What about the thousands of paleontologists and evolutionary biologists who have spent their entire lives researching evolution since Darwin first proposed the concept 150 years ago? What do you call the thousands of peer-reviewed papers that they produce? That is called science. Take your head out of the sand please, right now!

    How come there are no intermediary stages whatsover?

    Oh, but there are. We won’t go into how *every* fossil is a transitional fossil. Even we modern humans are still evolving, for example. But historically, the two most famous transitional forms would be tiktaalik (fish to amphibian) and archaeopteryx (dinosaur to bird). Evolution even predicted tiktaalik, and the geologic stratum it would be found in (about 375 million years ago). Why don’t you Google them and do a bit of reading? But you won’t.

    I do not see an ape turning into man? In fact, there are no signs whatsoever of this?

    Another fine demonstration of an argument from ignorance. No evolutionary scientist ever said that we evolved from modern apes. But millions of years ago, we shared a last common ancestor (LCA). From this LCA, modern species like chimpanzees, gorillas, and humans evolved. So you would never see a chimpanzee turning into a human. That’s not how it works at all. We branched off separately from the LCA long, long ago.

    The evolution answer to this is “mutations”? Mutations are a deformity?

    Sometimes mutations are a ‘deformity’. But sometimes they are beneficial. In fact, that is how natural selection works. If a mutation in the genes imparts a trait that is beneficial to the survival of the offspring, then those offspring will survive to produce more offspring with the same beneficial mutation. Likewise, those with mutations that were not beneficial (i.e. ‘deformities’) would likely not survive in the wild. So they wouldn’t be able to reproduce to pass on the deformity and that lineage of ‘bad mutation’ would die out. See where this is going? It’s called ‘evolution by natural selection’ :-)

    There is absolutely ‘zero’ evidence of evolution.

    You can lead a blind man to water, but you can’t make him drink. End of today’s science lesson.

    OK… in retrospect, I do sound a little condescending there. I would probably be even more polite today as I have matured as a skeptic since then. But I never called the person an idiot or anything like that. And did this person respond? No, of course not. Most posts by creationists are just drive-bys. They leave their stupid little pigeon-like droppings all over blogs like that. Mostly we’re patient, fighting the good fight for science. But sometimes we lose it. Meh.

  157. DRn

    So it took the skeptical scientific community this long to figure out that you will attract more flies with honey than vinegar? The irony is those of us who follow religion have known this for quite a long time.

    Not that I’m criticizing you, Phil, I’ve been a long time reader of your blog as well as your latest book. I watched the speech and agree with most of your points. What really gets old is having to deal with someone who melodramatically and wildly acts incredulous when they find out that I read a Bible and pray before a meal. Nevermind that computer engineering is my trade and amateur astronomy is my hobby, I’m simply a non-sapient bipedal beast incapable of any rational thought whatsoever. Yes, it gets tiring.

  158. Jearley

    I just had occasion to write a letter to the editor of our local paper a few days ago, correcting or perhaps confronting some ignorant comments on the nature of science, Dark Matter and evolution by some local creationist. My normal reaction to the sort of nonsense that this guy wrote is to be a dick. As Phil points out, you don’t get very far that way. I wrote my letter, re-read it, took out the dickish comments, and then sent it.
    I believe that it was Asimov who wrote that when he wanted to write an angry reply, that he would write it, read it and tear it up. Wit email, it is a bit easier than the typewrite that the Good Doctor used to use.
    In truth, I doubt that I will change the mind of even one creationist. But I might, so I keep writing.

  159. ReuniteGondwanaland

    I love the sentiment and I hope we get more cordiality in political, cultural and scientific debate. Even just a little. Anybody else read author John Scalzi’s blog “Whatever” or his book from his blog, “Your Hate Mail Will be Graded”? One of the essays in the book talks about this same topic, encouraging the religious to be a little more cordial, think the title was “Dickheads for Jesus”. It made me laugh–

    “…when these Dicks for Jesus try to offer up some alternate explanation for their behavior, I think it’s fair to remind them of a number of things:
    1. Whatever the rationale, they’re being dicks.
    2. At no point in the Bible does Jesus say “be a dick in My name.”
    3. Lots of other Christians seem to get through life without feeling called upon to be a dick in the service of Christ.
    4. Indeed, when many of these Christians discover to their dismay that they’ve been a dick about something, they will frequently fall to their knees and say, “Forgive me, Lord, for I have been a total dick.”
    5. And He does.
    6. That’s a hint.”

    Maybe there’s a path back to cordial discussion in this country. I might have to check out a meeting of the Coffee Party.

  160. Coda

    @ DRn #162
    “So it took the skeptical scientific community this long to figure out that you will attract more flies with honey than vinegar?”

    I’ll just leave this here… 😉

  161. MoonShark

    @Fat Asian Chick: You’re too lazy to cite your own examples? That’s pretty damn lame.

    The reason I asked, even suggested flamewars (which are notoriously dumb) was summed up well by Steve in Dublin:

    Sorry, but I don’t think you can count flame wars on the web as indicative of skeptics behaving badly. Most times we are severely provoked by so much dumbness being copied-and-pasted from contrarian sites by the scientifically challenged that we eventually lose patience. It’s not the same at all as a face-to-face social situation.

    So there’s often an environment of excessive juvenile behavior long before any skeptics show up. And even if the skeptics falter and resort to personal attacks, it’s generally after a LOT of experience getting nowhere using calm, rational, cited rebuttals. I’m not saying that makes epithets right; I’m saying insults are by no means the first strategy they try.

    Keep in mind, some people clearly masquerade as skeptics yet have no interest in reason. They usually have a postcount of 1.

    All I want is one example to the contrary, one earnest skeptic that flipped out unjustly on mild-mannered believers… but I guess I asked the wrong person. You seem content with evidence-free whining.

  162. DRn

    @Moonshark: You’re exactly the type of person who I think needs to re-watch Phil’s presentation above.

    This is a forum where people who can’t see each other are discussing a point. It’s entirely informal. It’s a comment section of a blog, for crying out loud — and you’re demanding specific times and dates for other forms of informal human reaction that nobody in their right mind would log. What Fat Asian Chick is talking about isn’t routinely saved in peer-evaluated scientific journals, Moonshark. And you’re the one going on and on about irrationality and reason.

    And in informal conversations as these, nobody owes you an immediate citation to anything. Do you do the same thing in a coffee shop when talking to a perfect stranger about these things? Excuse me Moonshark, let me walk out to the trunk of my car and as to access and pore through my thousands of volumes of scientific journals to prove my point. Yeah. Right.

  163. David

    @Drn Sorry no, the fat Asian made specific claims and this is a science/skeptic blog. names dates and places might be a bit much I agree, but a single citation or at least description of what occurred is hardly asking too much.

    Surely someone can post a link to some prominent skeptic being a “dick” when it wasn’t warranted?

    I don;t post much but I lurk and read almost all the sci/skeptic blogs and even in the comments of pharyngula where I have heard are vile and nasty the vast MAJORITY of people are civil. Hell even on Fark most of the skeptics are civil (granted on fark its a slight majority).

    I don’t get where this meme that new atheists are uncivil has come from, perhaps someone could point it out.

  164. DRn

    @David I have to admit it’s an annoyance of mine to be engaged in casual conversation (such as this) and say something only to have someone jump up demanding a citation from an indisputable source. If it was a scientific debate in a think tank, sure. If I’m sitting in the bar with you having a beer, no. More often than not it’s a trump card folks like Moonshark like to play because really, who’s going to run off and waste time just to prove a point for what’s supposed to be a simply casual conversation in the first place?

    Anyway, I’ve been around many of the sci and skeptic forums from years ago and you’re right, David, rarely do passions get fired up against someone else directly present because for the most part everyone is on the same program. My personal favorites to discuss were the claims that even the most casual consumer will accept, such as those from Monster Cable. It was a fun and educational time and there was a lot I learned just from how much silly manufacturer claims cost a regular consumer. As far as the religion vs atheism discussions went, I don’t remember them being anything but low key and civil. I have no doubt that they still are.

    Now I can’t speak for Phil, but if you want to see the repugnant mentality that folks like me are getting sick and tired of, just go visit Reddit or even Fark whenever a headline about religion pops up and read the comments. I guarantee you’ll see mostly replies and backslapping from folks congratulating themselves on not believing in a magical man in the sky and going so far as to state that anyone who is anything but purely atheist is a barely-functioning hominid, lacking all intellect, with nothing of value to contribute to society whatsoever. And no, I am not making that up. In fact, for those of you who love and demand citations, here you go:

    “[Brilliant religious folks] are people I call the faux intelligent. Even dogs can do things that appear extremely bright—how much more the case for a humanoid.” –

    “Even if they manage to seem smart in other areas, the massive gap in critical thought required to swallow religion renders you pretty firmly in the unintelligent category.” –

    Those two examples above may not be the “uncivil” you’re looking for David, but it’s at the very least smug, rude, and made of the same ignorance they accuse others of suffering from.

  165. Being a dick works (when required) because people detest ridicule. Ridicule is shocking, embarrassing, and people often want it to stop RIGHT NOW, so much so that they will often re-visit why they’re being ridiculed. Also, people who observe the ridicule but aren’t the target of it will often learn from that ridicule much better than if it were directed at them, but remember, not everyone is an intellectually dishonest pussbag. Some people actually DO listen, even if the message is harsh. I know that if someone is right and I am wrong, I tend to fix my mistakes, even I think the delivery is harsh, but I would expect a harsher delivery if I am being hardheaded or stubborn.

    Some of my best bosses have been harsh, because they were able to get me (or others) to understand the severity of a particular mistake, but this same behaviour could make some people cry. It also let me know where they stood. A harsher delivery was more serious, and a non-harsh delivery wasn’t. It actually scares me a little when I don’t know where someone stands, so I don’t mind a little passion. As long as my boss was correct, I took the criticism. If I thought they were wrong about something, I’d stand my ground (when it mattered enough to fight for it).

    One of my best teachers in High School was harsh too. He made some students cry, but for my personality, it resonated with me…probably because my parents were harsh about their corrections. Everyone is different, and responds to correction differently. Sure, being a dick will lose some people, but will catch the attention of others. This is why they have boot camp for the armed forces, or ‘scared straight’ programs for troubled youth. I think we all know why a powerful show of force is needed sometimes to get through to people, and ridicule (being a dick) is powerful, but should be reserved only when needed (and I don’t mean simple name-calling). There are many ways to be a dick without resorting to childish name-calling.

    This isn’t just about religion but getting people to stop being dishonest about any point, and dishonesty will generally bring ridicule (being a dick). When a skeptic has clearly explained why the Design Argument is flawed, and the theist continues to make points using this fallacy, the theist is being dishonest. At this point, being a dick is appropriate, because you’re now making an example of the theist for others to see, ‘Look, don’t be a dishonest douchebag, because I will start to treat you like one. Avoid this argument, or re-think it’.

    How do most people come around to any new idea? You can bet that there were a lot of dicks making people feel stupid for having stupid ideas….this could be about Prohibitions, Women’s Rights, Civil Rights, Gay Rights, Atheist Rights, the 1st amendment, etc. A truly stupid argument sometimes need the dicks among us to ‘snap’ people out of their haze….because on a fundamental level, we social primates HATE ridicule, and most of us will do anything to avoid it.

    Even if it means re-thinking our position. 😉

  166. David

    @DRn Trying to type this on a netbook in bed and im a terrible typist. If reddit is like fark and i think it is. I don’t think it really qualifies. Unless the claim here is that the skeptic community is a bunch of trolls. Someone in the other thread mentioned the comments on a creationist video on youtube as a source for the “dicks”. Honestly if youtube reddit fark or digg commenter’s are the problem, well i suggest a rethink on this whole issue because i doubt many of those people are attending TAM or give a fark what any of us want.

    As for asking for citations. honestly I think citations and not accepting anecdotal evidence are the two greatest things about skeptics. Before I ever heard of skeptics practically before there was an internet I didn’t accept claims without evidence. My wife hates it and claims its my autism but it drives me insane when people make claims without evidence.

    btw I actually AM a “Dick” in real life its not intentional but I lack certain social skills, combine that with the fact that I compulsively correct people and ive been called a dick and worse. Thats why I don’t post much. I usually just keep reading threads and hope someone posts the response that I need to get rid of the nagging feeling in the back of my neck.

  167. Red

    Phil mentioned hubris in the video. I think there’s another kind of hubris in the ‘don’t be a dick’ movement. Namely that if only I can be smart enough and clever enough and articulate enough, I can craft the perfect argument that will convert the other person (even if that happens at some point in the future).

    Not only is that patently false, these otherwise useful folks confuse activity for productivity and fail to realize that all the information and arguments needed to ‘deconvert’ someone are already available and easily accessible. Hell, all that was available 100 years ago. We don’t need any more scientific advances or slick new arguments to prove that woo-woo is, indeed, woo-woo. From my experience if someone is capable of converting she will eventually do so on her own. A friend of mine coined a ‘deconversion’ formula: intelligence+courage+consideration=deconversion. We can’t give people courage or intelligence. All we can do is give them the opportunity for considering their beliefs. We don’t even need to come up with the materials to consider, they’re all already out there. We just need to get the word out. Unfortunately some folks are too scared or lazy to do the grunt work of actually talking to people and instead think that some new fangled debate tactic is a worthwhile substitute.

    And this doesn’t even take into account that if we try to convert people one on one we’ll soon be bred out of existence. There’s simply not enough of us and not enough time to try and affect change on an individual basis.

  168. Red

    Another way to look at it: slavery and institutional racism were commonplace less than 200 years ago. Did the abolitionists calmly (but passionately) reason with each individual slaveowner and proponent of slavery that what they were doing was bad? I think it was more along the lines of a few people behaving like dicks and pointing out that slavery and racism are very ugly practices. Then as people were forced to confront that ugly truth a groundswell of anti racism sentiment grew up and people started looking at and treating racists in a different way. Of course that didn’t end racism but it forced most racists to change or keep their opinions to themselves – to the great benefit of society.

    Likewise we’ll probably never rid ourselves of magical thinking but if we could change public perception of people that think that way we’ll have made the world a better place.

    Imagine how an adult who professed to believe in Santa Claus (and ordered his life around that belief) would be treated today. I think our goal should be to sway public sentiment so that believers were treated in a similar manner.

    Again the big question is how best to achieve that goal. Unfortunately we don’t have much actual data on that. What we , as people of science , should be doing – instead of squabbling about what being a dick really means – is formulating honest to goodness experiments to determine , once and for all, what the best methods are. A few hundred years ago people debated what the moon was made of. Finally our scientists got busy and sent people up there and got definitive proof. We need to quit arguing about our opinions and personal preferences and get some damn proof.

  169. Red

    And as several others have pointed out, some specific examples of dickish behavior would be very helpful. I’ve seen people use the term ‘name calling’, but that doesn’t always equate to being a dick. Context does matter.

    By the way, is there a Bad Astronomy forum? Or is the comments section all we have?

  170. MoonShark

    @Moonshark: You’re exactly the type of person who I think needs to re-watch Phil’s presentation above.

    @DRn: If you saw my short review above, I watched very carefully and took notes. I rewound every few sentences to make sure I wasn’t missing the message. I concur with Phil’s descriptions of what a skeptic is and does and what the odds against us are. The first 14 minutes were particularly good. I agree with the majority of the talk, which is why I listed eleven of his most important points!

    The problem I find is that he and others call it “trivially easy” to find examples of skeptics being dicks. I don’t buy it. Plenty of times I’ve seen jaded skeptics joke about being the in-your-face jerk Phil describes, calling believers “retards” completely unprovoked. But I’ve never seen them get away with that without other skeptics saying “hey, don’t actually do that, it’s not cool / it’s unwise”.

    However, I’d say it’s a very different story after a long bout of frustration, after believers launch a hateful message and then slag on with tired talking points and goalpost shifts. Skeptics wielding insults in response to that weren’t addressed in the talk, at least not nearly to my satisfaction. PZ had a decent example just yesterday. What are we supposed to do when a dingbat theocrat brings up a blatantly stupid idea? Thank him for suggesting it and calmly suggest that maybe he’s just mistaken on some of the details? Hell no, a guy like that Michael Voris has an agenda. Anything less than a terse response does jack squat.

    So again, I’m curious to see cases of skeptic dickishness where there wasn’t 1) some preexisting context of dickish believer agenda, or 2) every other skeptic in the room rapidly backpedaling and distancing themselves from the truly unprovoked rudeness of their associate.

    This is a forum where people who can’t see each other are discussing a point. It’s entirely informal. It’s a comment section of a blog, for crying out loud — and you’re demanding specific times and dates for other forms of informal human reaction that nobody in their right mind would log.

    Sure, but part of the skeptic movement does need to be formal, if we want to improve the education system or fix public policy. If we are to demand evidence from the rest of society, we should practice what we preach and demand it from ourselves — even if that includes the more informal situations. Besides, on the web, most of that crap is already logged. This post has my handle, a number, and an automated timestamp for easy reference.

    And in informal conversations as these, nobody owes you an immediate citation to anything. Do you do the same thing in a coffee shop when talking to a perfect stranger about these things? Excuse me Moonshark, let me walk out to the trunk of my car and as to access and pore through my thousands of volumes of scientific journals to prove my point. Yeah. Right.

    With smartphones and wireless broadband it should be pretty easy to bring up journals in a bar, but generally, yeah, poring through them is unreasonably burdensome. I’m just asking that people acknowledge that psych research exists and that we can sometimes get real empirical answers about human behavior. I’ve had plenty of skeptic disagreements end with “well I guess we’ll both have to reserve judgment until we find better support”, with science journals being the best potential tiebreaker. To continue to rant when it’s clear there’s scant evidence is senseless; that’s what politicians do. We don’t have to be like that, is all I’m saying.

  171. Lindsay

    Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you.

    I can’t possibly say it enough. It was a wonderful talk. You are my new favorite person.

    Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you.

  172. bhanaji

    Hi, Dr. Plait. Thanks for articulating this sentiment so succinctly.
    My daughter attends Camp Quest each summer to hone her critical thinking skills and relax with like-minded peers. Last summer I was troubled by the commentary of one of the younger counselors, a young woman who has not yet “come out” to her Baptist family as an atheist. She is hurt and fearful and resentful of the rejection she expects to experience when her views are known. This is understandable.
    What bothered me, though, was that she proffered to the kids examples of her family members’ writings and things they’d said as subjects of ridicule and derision.
    I am very grateful to have your video to forward to this sad, scared young person. I hope that your comments will help her talk with her family in a way less likely to result in more pain and estrangement in this already-difficult world.
    Thanks again.

  173. Isn’t this argument even a little patronizing….?
    You can speak seriously, firmly, assertively to scientists and skeptics but have to be “nice” (not a Dick) to others? Why? What’s wrong with the “others”? Are “we” so much better at arguing? Don’t think so.

  174. Excellent talk Phil!

    I think the weird part is that this is not the natural approach for most people. I didn’t realize it was even such a huge problem.

    I want to post the talk to my blog as well, and I know there’s at least one deaf reader. Is there a transcript I could link to? It would be very appreciated.

  175. Kaden

    Much of your talk section on believe/disbelieve cycle reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” cycle which came from his study of Carl Jung’s work on the development stages of self. Jung did work on UFOs in the psyche, as well as individual development through astrological cycles. He, of course, worked with Wolfgang Pauli for many years looking into synchronicity and dream interpretation. Pauli later writing his theory of neutrinos.

    Balance and knowing that thinking itself can go through cycles is key. Everyone needs to remain a mediator between science and faith/imagination/right-brain thinking.

  176. Chris Jeffers

    I truly needed the clarification. I think the original talk was in line with the Chris Sedmen (?) aka burkgate cribebe SCHOOL of ‘only be kind, meek and mild’. I would be more comfortable to hear Chris Hitchens name in this clarification.

  177. Phil, I like you more and more each time I hear you talk. Thanks!

  178. «bønez_brigade»

    Although I reserve the “should” to be an ass to the most odious and dishonest of the uncritical crowd, I do agree with your message. Thanks for putting the proverbial foot down on dickishness. Skeptics have many allies in the varied community of believers.

  179. In April, you wrote a blog criticizing my public Facebook page. I had expressed criticism of Brian Cox’s assertion that astrology was a load of rubbish on (an otherwise excellent) BBC TV science series. As a result, I received a great many comments from your followers. Some presented good arguments, but I was surprised how many were offensive or patronizing. This may have been because some had been led to believe that the FB page was specifically was “set up to hate Cox” – it never was and my comments about Professor Cox were always respectful.

    I believe that this hostile approach has discouraged most astrologers (apart from a fringe element) from getting involved in a debate. It would never deter them from practicing and may reinforce their view of astrology. However, it spurred me to investigate the scientific basis of astrology, which turns out to be stronger than I had realized.

    So while the adversarial and abusive approach to what many sceptics consider a lack of critical thinking has alienated many intelligent people, the break-down of dialogue has not improved the field of astrology. So my point is that I welcome the opportunity for dialogue as I believe we will all learn from the experience.

    Nevertheless, any dialogue has to be frank rather than evasively polite. Had astronomer, Richard Drumm confronted the issue of precession with his audience of astrologers, he would have discovered that most learnt about it in their first day in an astrology class. He would have also learnt that from the time of Ptolemy, the ecliptic coordinate system used by most western astrologers, known as the Tropical Zodiac has no relation to the constellations and that most western astrologers work with the planets (plus the Sun and the Moon) within the solar system rather than the stars. “Star Signs” is a misnomer used by the Press and those who do not understand the techniques involved in calculating a horoscope.

    Though Richard Drumm likes to have “a good laugh at the astrological silliness!”, to ridicule the Tropical Zodiac on this basis is as ‘silly’ as mocking the American Gallon for being out of line with the ‘only true’ measuring system: the British (Imperial) Gallon.

  180. Mr. Currey:
    I will do as you suggested on my blog, and have “a frank discussion” which you suggest may be “more instructive”. Here’s a quote, BA blogees, from Mr. Currey’s website explaining astrology, specifically his brand of “Tropical Zodiac” astrology:

    “The basis of astrology is the belief that like the genetic code etched onto every living cell, every atom in the microcosm is imprinted with the overall design of the macrocosm. By looking at the heavens, we can see this pattern revealed in its entirety.”

    Can you provide evidence of this? An extraordinary claim like yours demands it.
    Thank you.

  181. Thank you for spotting that, Richard. You make a good point.

    I wrote that line for a brochure in 1988 and recycled it uncritically when I first designed one of my websites. As I wrote above, since April I have been investigating the scientific basis of astrology and realise that my use of astrology is based on empirical data rather than specious beliefs like this. In fact, I don’t believe there is, as yet, a known mechanism to natal astrology. So it has already been jettisoned into outer space. Fortunately, this claim never made our present brochures or advertising.

    You have just provided a good example where we can all learn from dialogue.

  182. MosesZD

    When you’re dealing with someone who disagrees with you on some matter, what is your goal? What is your goal? What are you trying to accomplish? Insulting them, yelling at them, calling them brain damaged or morons or baby rapers, may make you feel good. . . but is your goal to score a cheap point, or is your goal to win the damn game?

    More made up “Evil Atheist” stuff, I see. Put on proof, Phil. And, for remedial reading, re-read Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. And think about where blacks would be today if they adopted your failure of a strategy.

    So, sorry Phil, but I learned from my grandmother who was a civil rights marcher and used her bully pulpit as a SF Chronicle columnist to help effect change. Change that people like you would rather throw away for the peace of today, like MLK said:

    First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

    And that’s what you and the accommodationist preach. Don’t make waves. Don’t stand up for science. Don’t stand up for the truth. Make peace with the religious so they can have their fairy tales.

    It isn’t working Phil. To get acceptance of science, religion must fade into obscurity. And it will not, like the white supremacist, go down without a fight.

  183. Scote

    As I noted at Jerry Coyne’s blog, Thomas Jefferson disagrees with Phil Plait:

    “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”

    Sometimes mockery, ridicule or satire is more effective than dry, reasoned argument alone. Mockery can be used to demonstrate the vacuity of nonsensical arguments far more effectively than the recitation of syllogisms and data. One need look no further than PZ Myers “The Courtier’s Reply” to see this to be true.

    Had he lived in another time I guess that Plait would be condemning the incivility of Voltaire and Jonathan Swift, saying how Candide and A Modest Proposal all hurt the cause of rational thinking.

    Sorry Phil Plait, but ridicule is a valid tool in the quiver to be used against nonsense. To say otherwise is just to reprise Unscientific America, without supporting data, again.

  184. Notagod

    Well damn Phil! It looks like you convinced several people that being dickish isn’t appropriate. But, you did it by being dickish. How did you do that if it doesn’t work? Or is it da poor widdle christians that just can’t handle it?

    More seriously though, your approach has already been tried; it didn’t work. That is why we are in the position we are. Stupid shouldn’t have a privileged position in society and I think that is what you are unwittingly supporting. When I was growing up I knew the christians were obviously wrong but I thought something was wrong with me because I had never heard of or known anyone that didn’t believe the christian fable. I certainly wish there had been more “dickish” atheists back then.

  185. Cobey Cobb

    My god man. That was beautiful. I’ve never,ever seen you so real and passionate during a talk. Don’t let all of these negative commenters get you down (as if they would anyways), you speak the truth. I’m going to try and share this video with as many people as possible. That last story was really something too. Thanks Phil

  186. ian Wood

    “Don’t be a dick” works fine with rational, reasonable people. It has no effect whatsoever on creationists and their facilitators who will continue to outright lie and evade, and tell the same lie endlessly over and over again, and seek new ways to force their lies upon children in schools no matter how polite, reasonable, rationale, evidence-supported and decent you are.

    When you’ve exhausted all evidence-supported pathways, all rational and reasonable pathways, and all decent pathways, and are still up against the blind, dogmatic, and intransigent brick wall of creationism, creationists deserve all the abuse and ridicule they get and then some.

  187. Well done! I could not agree more!!! It takes kindness, patience and respect to help others to embrace their own rational thinking. Personal attacks and plain “dickishness” only drives people into defensiveness and further entrenches them into the safe dogma they are familiar with. Let us not forget that it is scary to leave the illusions of our youth in order to stride into maturity … emotionally or mentally … and a person must be ready and willing to make this journey. I am not a religious person, but in this, I feel the Buddhists have got it right – every journey toward enlightenment (be it spiritual or intellectual) is unique to the person who is walking it and it is not my place, nor yours, to tell someone that they are walking in the wrong direction. If it takes them longer to reach the top of the mountain, so be it. If they spend years walking around the base, slogging through jungles of ignorance, never making much progress up the slope, so be it. We cannot make the journey for them. By patiently showing them that there is a bigger world up here, one day, their curiosity will overcome their fears and they will begin to make their way up the mountain. But they must make that choice themselves. Shouting matches are merely noisy, unproductive and, at worst, repellant. You catch more bees with honey, and you help others broaden their minds with patience and kindness. I agree – don’t be a dick.

  188. Nigel Depledge

    Brycemeister (107) said:

    They don’t seem to get a lot of things. If I’m accosted, my response is usually “So? What do you got to offer? Hey, Catholic Church? Buy your way to heaven-couple Hail Mary’s, guilt absolved. Buddhism? Escape! Even the Presbyterians and Protestants have just a ‘be real good’ kinda ethic going. But you guys? There’s nothing after death, no free will, mind is an illusion (dang. There goes the rudder.). To me that says…nothing.

    Surely the absence of an irrational fantasy is better than nothing?

    Morals? Nope, can’t offer that.

    Er, wrong. “Be nice to people, ‘cos this is all there is (probably),” is a better moral guide than the promise of paradise. Partly because it’s (as far as anyone can tell) the closest we can get to the truth, and partly because it’s not trying to manipulate people into following any specific set of rules.

    If you really think that catholics and protestants believe in “be nice to people”, try reading some of the history of Northern Ireland from the 1960s and 1970s.

    Sorry guys-aint got no mind,

    Wrong again. Mind is an emergent phenomenon, but it exists. Anyone could tell you that it exists – the challenge is to explain where it comes from.

    controlled by externalities, morals can’t be had.

    I don’t know of any atheists who espouse this view. Do you, or are you building a stawman?

    And nothing else. Oh, well, it’s a…better, more rational way of thinking. It’ll make you more realistic, balanced.

    Actually, it has every chance of making you respect people more.

    Yeah, but outside of athiest camps, and some public speakers-nope, still nothing. You got nothing, and you’re trying to convince me of…what?” At which point, the usual stuff is trotted out, none of which works, because you’re trying to educate me, and my primitive ape instincts read it as positioning.

    Yes, because trying to educate someone is obviously a terrible thing to do to them! 😉

  189. “Being a Dick” obviously means different things to different people.I said on my blog that I suspect some sort of TAM/JRF committee at work here, since Rebecca Watson said to the word the same thing in Copenhagen.I also said I agreed with her in that we should pick our fights and that telling granny on her deadbed that god doesnt exist is a dick move and picking the wrong fight.
    However, and this is what I don’t understand, clearly being nice and understanding and tolerant and pleasant to religious folks has not worked to convert anyone for 2000 years, and worked in fact to cement superstition and marginalise non-believers.So how can you possibly argue for just that approach in 2010 ?

  190. James (the militant agnostic)

    I loved every word of your speech.

    However many of the comments indicate a possibly unexpected problem:

    “How do you encourage someone to stop behaving like a dick if they don’t know (and seemingly can’t tell) that they’re behaving like a dick?”

  191. Thanks for your courage. It’s really, really hard for me not to be a dick to parents who reject vaccines for their kids. Every single approach to these people seem futile.

    Anyway, thanks! I’m so happy to have finally seen the video! Ping:

  192. Peter

    Phil, I really liked what you had to say in that talk. Skeptics can make themselves heard and still be approachable, they can be reasonable without being rude and they will have more positive effect on people who like them than on people who feel belittled by them.

  193. marais

    Then why are you being one Phil?

  194. Angie

    oh, never mind. sorry.

  195. Angie

    I actually clapped while watching this video. Thanks, Dr. Plait!

  196. Peter Besenbruch

    Thanks Phil for your comments. As a Christian, I can say that “dickery” is an attribute we share some of the more militant atheist types. Your article serves as a good reminder to me.

    Keep up the good work exposing the abuses of science. I have enjoyed your writing for years.

  197. Midoriem

    I just watched this video, and I liked the message. Courtesy and inclusion is something we are all supposed to know, but it gets cast aside all too frequently- being a dick will just make someone go in the other direction in a hurry.
    I actually found your argument through a a comic I follow, called ‘Scens from a Multiverse’, that summed up your argument fairly concisely: – people who can communicate their ideas in a way that engages their audience ie. Penn and Teller, the aforementioned link, will be much more likely to have their ideas, instead of a sense of foaming vitriol, remembered.

  198. Proposed DBAD rule #1: Insults are prohibited. Phil strongest point regards the use of insults. Hurling insults is dick behavior. The anecdotal evidence he uses persuades me that calling someone an idiot is unlikely to change the minds of the subject or those listening. Skeptics should agree that name-calling should be off-limits even if it does attract a few new skeptics. The cost outweighs the small benefit.

    Proposed DBAD rule #2: Use wit, sarcasm, and satire carefully. But not all dick-behavior is bad. For example, sarcasm, wit, and satire are all valid tools, even if at the end of the day it is dick behavior. Think of Mark Twain, or A modern example, Christopher Hitchens. They used this sort of “dick behavior” effectively. Similarly to what Rush Limbaugh has done, since the 1990s. Rush has drastically changed the political dynamic in this nation using these dickish tools.

    On the flip side, not everyone is a Mark Twain or Rush Limbaugh, so use these tools cautiously.

    Whether it is good or bad, dick behavior can be useful to rally people to a cause. Forsaking these tools may make promoting skepticism more difficult. The fact is, nice guys finish last.

    Any more proposed DBAD rules?

  199. mike

    Great talk Phil, glad to hear this message amongst skeptics.

    For those who have asked about what the science/psychology literature says about whether “being a dick” or “being polite” is more effective, I’ve looked into several times and found very limited support for either position.
    The only thing that seems reasonably relevant is the populist psychology idea of the “law” of reciprocity – the idea that if you do something for someone, they will feel compelled to do something for you. If you think of this in terms of politeness, if you can maintain politeness in the face of rudeness, it is difficult for your opponent to continue to be rude, without them looking “like a dick”. This is an approach I used again and again effectively when I worked in retail to deal with rude customers.
    It is also worth repeating a key point several people have made is that the “being a dick” and “being polite” is a false dichotomy. Being polite doesn’t not mean you cannot be assertive, persistent or rational at the same time. It does not mean being accommodationist.

  200. Brandon Swift

    All I really have to add is “thank you.” Phil, I’ve had this sort of thing affect my life in some serious ways recently, so your speech is very timely and uplifting for me.

  201. willem vanK

    Great lecture. I agree that being a dick does not work. It is also my firm “believe” that if you take away somebody’s faith ( so to speak his or hers truth in life) you should put something positive in place. For instance LOVE is not necessarily religious. Empathy is not either, it is genetically in ourselves ( ‘the age of empathy’ by frans de waal is very good reading about this, as are more of his books) as thinking animals, also the idea that we belong to the greatest thing ever: nature and that we are genetically connected to all living creatures is a great gift to people of whom you take away their religion. Don’t be a dick and take away someting from them, give them something real to go for!
    (excuse my english )

  202. foxfire

    What a wonderful talk Phil and it has been my experience (in about 60 years of life) that you are taking the right path. I lost my belief in the traditional Judeo/Christian/Islamic god at age 14 because someone tried to browbeat me into accepting the concept babies and small children would be doomed at their death to an eternity of torment because a priest/minister didn’t toss water on them and/or because they were predestined to their fate by some invisible Being and/or didn’t “accept” someone they never heard about or were too young to understand – never quite understood which point the Sunday school lady was making (have read quite a bit about religion since then and IMHO, the axioms upon which the subsequent logic is based don’t appear to have any observable supporting evidence).

    I don’t like the current tone of things and it is heartening to see that the box Francis Collins had neatly been placed into seems to be more transparent lately.

    Kudos Phil and keep it up (ditto to Shermer)

  203. Randy Martin

    I didn’t see reference to this above, but have others considered the fact that there are physiological differences?

    If it is true that believers are wired differently than non-believers.. not only belief in god but also believe in a magical/supernatural world … then I think the approach should be slightly different than proposed.

    Replacing magic with non-magic will not work. But helping to focus and clarify magical thinking should work; while still leaving room for the possibility of magic.

    Any thoughts?

  204. Randy Martin

    In addition to physiological, there are a multitude of psychological factors.
    One of the best discussions on this in laymen’s terms is from Psychology Today


    I recommend this article to anyone who wonders why 90% of Americans believe in a God.
    Consider that a believer likely believes all or some of the following statements: (paraphrased from the article link above)

    1. anything can be sacred
    2. anything can be cursed
    3. mind rules over matter
    4. rituals bring good luck / rituals work
    5. the name of something has power
    6. karma exists
    7. the universe is alive and has a mind/soul

    so.. assume that a believer you are talking to believes one or all of the above.
    You cannot disprove any of the above points to them… they can always find exceptions to any debunking you do.

    what a wonderful thing it is to be human! :-)

  205. At the Gods and Politics conference in Copenhagen we had a bit of discussion after dinner, not the least prompted by Rebbeca Watson’s somewhat similar speech. To some degree I think we forget how much time and effort we’ve put into this, and then we kinda go into denial.

    Goes a bit like this: “It shouldn’t be necessary to couch our words … yeah, but it is, people are emotional … yeah, but it SHOULDN’T be necessary … etc.” In the end it boils down to whether we want to win the argument or feel superior – and whether we will be in denial of that irrefutable reality or not. Accepting it is frustrating, but who to better handle frustration than us?

    Though we might morally feel everyone else *should* think and act differently there’s enough experimental psychology that proves clearly that we humans are not as smart or rational as we think. James Randi really pounded in that point, Richard Wiseman too I guess. Everyone can be fooled, as Randi put it. Easy to say, a bit harder to accept for one self :o)

  206. Dan Kennan

    What an incredibly depressing read. I have much less optimism for the movement now that it’s tearing itself apart on the issue of whether “conversion” is more likely with “fire and brimstone” or “love”. Sounds like Calvinists vs Arminians (and that argument is still going on after centuries). Like most movements, skepticism is breaking up into denominations who will be throwing stones at one another from now on. Sad.

    To me, it’s not about pinning someone into a corner intellectually and then demanding they change their minds…recent understandings of how people choose, defend and change beliefs has empirically shown that tactic to have the opposite effect.

    It’s also not about accepting every goofy belief someone has. It’s about picking your battles and planting seeds. If someone thinks vaccines are dangerous and believes in God, I’m going to give them info and work with them to see that vaccines are good. Maybe some other day, after they look at me as a reasonable person who has good sense, we can talk about religion. But a lifelong belief is not going to melt away because I have a sarcastic comeback that implicitly calls them an idiot.

    It’s about getting them into a habit of thinking skeptically and being choosy about what evidence they accept. Once you’ve shown them why vaccines are not a plot to kill them, they may just start to use those tools in other parts of their lives.

    But apparently I’m doing it wrong because I’m not attacking every belief they have that I think is mistaken.

  207. John

    I agree with what Plait said, but why was Plait being a dick to people in his own audience?
    “I’m not invested in the applause.” “Congratulations, you saved a coddling fairy’s life.”

  208. hoody

    Fact remains, PZ IS a dick. He SHOULD have been targeted.

  209. I worked in a biomedical research laboratory for several years alongside several people who were fervently religious. In particular, the guy with whom I shared a workspace was particularly devout in his beliefs. But he was generally, on a day-to-day basis, a very nice guy and we held a mutual degree of respect for each other.

    Well, that’s not entirely true. You see, as an atheist biologist it is even more difficult for me to respect the religious faith of my colleagues working in the biosciences than it is for me to respect the faith of someone without a formal scientific education. To me, continuing to believe in the biblical story of creation, for example, in the light of and yet in spite of all we have been taught about the natural world after many years specialization in the natural sciences, is comparable to an astronaut who continues to believe that the world is flat even after flight training. Such blatant disregard for scientific knowledge is at once insulting and embarrassing to the rest of us who see the obvious truth about life on this planet and the how the world actually works.

    But we rarely spoke to each other about religion. Early on in our friendship, he had asked me if I went to church and I told him that I didn’t believe in god. For his part, he didn’t try to press me for a reason and I didn’t try to convince him that he was wrong. But it annoyed me how consumed his personal life outside of work was with his church. He went to a private religious college in Michigan. His wife majored in religion and worked for the church headquarters in Washington. They didn’t have sex until after they were married. They are anti-abortion. They are anti-gay rights. Every single relationship or extra-curricular activity in which he partook seemed to originate from the church: bake sales and bible schools, the babysitter they found to look after their son and the mechanic they hired to fix their car. His involvement in the church absolutely defined his life outside of the lab. And over the years I heard about it all.

    Fast forward to one day toward the end of my time there, a day on which I wasn’t in the best of moods and when I knew I wouldn’t be around much longer. The two of us and a third med-student lab-mate were working in the tissue culture room. They were having a conversation about religion and, as usual, I was keeping to myself. I learned long ago that even in an academic research lab, it is not worth it to get involved in such conversations. I have also found that, as a general rule, when people discuss controversial topics, whether religion, abortion, gay rights or whatever, it almost never happens that anyone will actually ask for anyone else’s opinion. Everyone tends to be so preoccupied with getting their own two cents into the hopper that they completely lose sight of the fact that anyone else might be actually trying to make a valid point. It’s easy to remain silent when no one asks for your opinion.

    But this day was different. They were talking about Dr. Francis Collins, who is most widely known for his leading role in the coordination of the government side of the Human Genome Project. Specifically, they were talking about his recent nomination by President Obama to become Director of the National Institutes of Health. I knew even before my friend started to speak that he would be gushing with support over this decision because Collins is an outspoken Christian and the absolute epitome of the respected life scientist who manages to reconcile his belief in God with his knowledge of the natural world. Make no mistake; he is not merely a successful scientist who also happens to be religious. No. Dr. Collins has literally written books on this topic. So when the president nominated him to what is effectively the highest and most powerful scientific post in the country, yeah, I was a little bit pissed off. I’m also certain that I was not alone in this feeling.

    Much to my surprise, the medical student turns to me in what I suppose was a genuine effort to include me in the conversation and asks, “So what do you think about Francis Collins’ nomination?” Shocked that my opinion was asked, I remained briefly silent while engaging in a mental debate as to what sort of response I should give: should it be a measured, conservative response indicating my dissatisfaction or should I plunge head-first into a tirade with reckless abandon. They did ask my opinion, after all. I could have taken the high road and said something diplomatic. I could have let it be, more or less, as I generally did over the years. But I have to confess, my excitement in actually being asked my opinion for once got the better of me. After taking a deep breath, I responded, “Are you sure you want to hear my answer to that question?” This was probably the worst thing I could’ve said because now she was intrigued and genuinely curious as to what I might have to say about this guy of whom my friend had just spoken so highly. She confirmed that she wanted to know what I had to say and I decided to just lay it out there, “I think it’s embarrassing,” I confessed, with the sort of relieved feeling of, “there, I said it.”

    “You think it’s embarrassing?” she replied confusedly with her eyebrows furrowed. I began to explain that I felt his nomination was just window-dressing; that The President was pandering to the religious vote and that it was a completely inappropriate choice that sent the wrong message: you can go farther if you’re a good scientist and religious than you can just by being a good scientist. Unfortunately, I didn’t get too far into my explanation before being cut off by my religious lab-mate who began asking why I would use the word embarrassed. I started by explaining the results of a poll carried out in 1996 and 1998 that asked scientists if they “believed in a personal God.” The proportion of researchers expressing doubt or disbelief when chosen randomly from the population was about 60% percent, higher than in the general population, to be sure, but certainly not universal. However, when the field of respondents was narrowed to include only members of the National Academy of Sciences, the contrast was stark: only 7% percent reported having such a belief. The interpretation is biting: its not that scientists don’t believe in god, it’s that the good ones don’t believe in god. I went on to assert my belief that many of the problems of the world today are a direct result of religion. He countered that, in fact, religion provides moral direction and that those who lack religion lack morality. I responded that (taking a page from Ricky Gervais’ book) Christians do not own the rights to being good.

    At this point, my friend became quite upset and our conversation quickly devolved into me saying that belief in god is incompatible with science and that if it were up to me, you wouldn’t even be allowed to hold such a position as NIH Director if you believed in god. I stopped short of saying you shouldn’t be allowed to get a PhD in biosciences either, although that was (and remains) my true opinion. After that, it was just a sort of back and forth of, “I think your opinion is stupid.” Shortly thereafter, realizing how awfully out of control everything had escalated, I excused myself from the room.

    Sitting back at my desk, I felt genuinely upset about the way things had gone. For a long time leading up to that moment I had this idea that it would be so liberating to just have it out with him and I had vowed to myself that if I was ever actually asked my opinion, I wouldn’t hold back. But in my excitement, when I finally had a good opportunity to express my beliefs, I blew it. To be fair, I was not as articulate in expressing my position on that day as I have been in this post. But in the end, we both walked away from the argument frustrated and things weren’t ever quite the same between us after that.

    So I guess what I want to say is simple: don’t do that. Don’t let your anger get the better of you. Of course, it’s easier to avoid an argument and keep your opinions about religion to yourself, even if your colleagues do not afford you the same courtesy. But don’t shy away from making your beliefs borne from your lack of faith known. And don’t let your frustration build up to the point that you finally release it all one day in an explosive tirade. I realize that others far better than me have expressed this same sentiment before, but no one wins if you do that, you gain no respect for your own beliefs and you’re certainly not going to bring anyone closer to your way of thinking.

    Thanks for this talk, Dr. Plait. I wish I had seen it sooner.


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