[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.
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.]
Links to this Post
- The Carrot and the Stick « The Great American Desert | August 17, 2010
- Don’t Be a Dick — My Thoughts | The Naturalist Biologist | August 17, 2010
- William K. Wolfrum’s Morning – Taxing Your Faith « Atheism « William K. Wolfrum Chronicles | August 18, 2010
- The secular movement needs diplomats, not warriors « Patrick Proctor was here | August 18, 2010
- Spreading the Message of Skepticism | Knowledge Begetting Confidence | August 18, 2010
- Phil Plait understands the principle of reciprocity. :The Thinker | August 19, 2010
- The Arrogance of Goats & the Arrogance of Sheep « The Call of Troythulu | August 19, 2010
- On Skepticism « DC Skeptics | August 19, 2010
- The Blog for WhyWontGodHealAmputees.com » Don’t be a dick - the need for skeptics to be kindler, gentler, nicer | August 20, 2010
- In defence of being a dick | Plausibility.net | August 21, 2010
- Interesting read: “Don’t be a dick” « Le Café Witteveen | August 21, 2010
- Are we phalluses? « Why Evolution Is True | August 22, 2010
- Jerry Coyne on Phil Plait | Furious Purpose | August 23, 2010
- Psych-out over ridiculous communication « The Tribal Scientist | August 24, 2010
- On the subject of being a dick… « The Winnipeg Skeptics | August 24, 2010
- Minding Our N00bish Egos « The Call of Troythulu | August 24, 2010
- » Dr. Phil Plait: Don’t Be a Dick Sulayman’s Stories | August 24, 2010
- The ten commandments of science journalism | Cosmopolitanaut | Dave Mosher: Science Journalist, Web Nerd | August 25, 2010
- I’m back and i’m bad! | August 25, 2010
- Stark Raving Matt « Secular Shawshank | August 25, 2010
- Science-Based Medicine » Why bother? | August 26, 2010
- Richard Dawkins: An atheist’s call to arms « Atheist Climber | August 26, 2010
- Joburg Skeptics in the Pub: The “Don’t be a Dick” edition « The Skeptic Detective | August 27, 2010
- The War Over “Nice” « Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day | August 27, 2010
- ICBS Everywhere › Irony, Hypocrisy, and Being Human | August 27, 2010
- Dicks, niceness and evil: a rant | Evolving Thoughts | August 29, 2010
- Once a skeptic, always a skeptic « The Thought Stash | August 30, 2010
- A bit on science education « Scatterbrained | August 30, 2010
- Keeping up with the Joneses » Blog Archive » Phil Plait – Don’t Be a Dick | August 31, 2010
- Darwin Harmless » Blog Archive » How Polite Should We Be? | August 31, 2010
- Rebecca Watson at The Gods&Politics conference in Copenhagen 2010–Don’t be a Dick revisited | Furious Purpose | September 1, 2010
- On unavoidable dickishness and whether to let the Wookie win « Gotham Skeptic | September 4, 2010
- Religious Freedom Trumps Our Feelings, ctd « Renaissance Roundtable | September 10, 2010
- Further Thoughts on the Ethics of Skepticism « Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day | September 10, 2010
- PSA: Changes to the Show « League of Reason | September 11, 2010
- A physicist, a chemist and a zoologist walk in to a bar … | Alice Bell | UmeedainTimes.com | September 13, 2010
- Shortcuts for Skeptical Activists Young and Old, Beginner to Veteran. « Griffith University Society for Skeptics and Freethinkers Weblog | September 20, 2010
- Let us be who we say we are. A call to Skeptics… « The Great American Desert | November 5, 2010
- Let’s Talk | The gorgeous also rises | December 26, 2010
- Why Not Be A Dick? « Cubik's Rube | January 18, 2011
- Twitter Weekly Updates for 2011-01-23 « MetaKnigel | January 22, 2011
- Skeptikai | Skeptically examining the world – Based in Tokyo | January 23, 2011
- Being a dick about it | God is Incredible | February 7, 2011
- (Charles) Darwin « Compass and Map | March 9, 2011
- In The Name of Progress: My Problems with Unscientific Malaysia. | Kakak Killjoy | April 11, 2011
- In the name of progress: My problems with Unscientific Malaysia | Unscientific Malaysia | April 28, 2011
- Critical Thoughts » How to effect change? | May 30, 2011
- More on tone | Evolving Thoughts | July 4, 2011
- An Introduction To The Amaz!ng Meeting - Skeptics On The .Net | July 15, 2011
- Don’t Be A Dick « Lean Left | August 10, 2011
- Do Be a Dick (sometimes): Emotions and Skeptics « Ashley F. Miller | September 6, 2011
- Being a Dick is not Binary « Friendly Atheist | October 11, 2011
- Dark Orifice » Does Atheism Have Denominations? | November 26, 2011
- The 21st Floor » Blog Archive » Burzynski: A perfect storm? | December 5, 2011
- A perfect storm of press releases | Butterflies and Wheels | December 14, 2011
- Dante 515 Solved | February 23, 2012
- Phil Plait understands the principle of reciprocity. | The Thinker | March 1, 2012
- Scorched Earth SkepticismSkeptinerd | April 9, 2012
- How to build link strength for your skeptic web site « Skeptical Software Tools | May 17, 2012
- An Introduction To The Amaz!ng Meeting | September 3, 2012