Are we phalluses?

I finally got a chance to watch Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” speech from The Amazing Meeting #8, which he’s put online at Bad Astronomy.  Plait has a further post in which he links to the diverse reactions to the talk that appeared in the blogosphere, and a final post in which he reiterates all the support he got for his talk.

As you may know, Plait’s theme was one of civility.  He argues that skeptics and atheists must be respectful and civil if they want to win others to their cause.  But he finds that politeness on the wane. “In some specific places,” he claims, “the tone of what we’re doing is decaying, and instead of relying on the merits of the arguments, which is what critical thinking is really all about, what evidence based reasoning is all about— it seems that vitriol and venom are on the rise.”

In the talk, Plait says that all too often skeptics behave like this:

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?

I must say that when I heard that, it immediately reminded me of this:

Many of my colleagues are fans of Dawkins, PZ, and their ilk and make a point AT CONSERVATION EVENTS to mock the religious to their face, shout forced laughter at them, and call them “stupid,” “ignorant” and the like – and these are events hosted by religious moderates where we’ve been ASKED to attend. They think it’s the way to be a good scientist, after all.

So what do you think happens when you spit in someone’s face, mock them openly, figuratively throw them to the ground and kick dirt in their face – and then ask “now we really need your help!!”? When my colleagues do this, you can watch the attention visibly disappear from the crowd when you finally start talking about conservation and real science.

That, of course, is the famous “Exhibit A”, written by the pseudonymous “Tom Johnson” and posted by Chris Mooney at The Intersection. The incident described by “Johnson” turned out to be fiction.

What struck me most strongly about the DBAD talk, and reminded me of the Tom Johnson affair, was Plait’s complete failure to provide evidence for what he was saying.   Not only did he not give a single instance of the rudeness and stridency that he finds so ubiquitous, but also gave no evidence that skeptics who behave that way have been less effective than others.  This was curious because, after all, the prime requirement for good skepticism is that you give evidence for what you think, and demand it from others.

Plait says that he deliberately refrained from giving evidence; indeed, he almost seems to claim that this lacuna was a virtue:

(From the talk): What I see is that hubris is running rampant, and that egos are just out of check and sometimes logic in those situations is left by the wayside.  I could go into specifics, but I’m not going to—you can find these for yourself: you know where to look.

(From his post): The author of this one says I don’t give specific examples, and therefore because he hasn’t seen the insults they don’t exist… and then accuses me of a strawman argument! I find that funny; finding examples about which I was speaking is trivially easy.

(From another of his posts): 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.

Now if examples of this behavior are “trivially easy” to find, why didn’t he give any? It seems to me that if you’re giving a talk about how bad behavior is wrecking the cause of skepticism, the first thing you need to do is give examples of that behavior.  That’s simply good argument.

There are several possibilities for why Plait didn’t.  The first is that the examples don’t exist. I don’t think this accounts for his failure to give any.  He surely has instances of “bad behavior” in mind—indeed, he says so.  And yes, you can find them in the comments section of several atheist websites.  But I find the claim of pervasive bad behavior unconvincing. If you look at the major voices of the skeptical movement, at least those that I read regularly, I think you’ll see very, very few cases of opponents being called “brain damaged” or “baby rapers”.  In general, the discourse is not about name-calling, but about facts and rational argument.  Even P. Z. Myers, who of course immediately came to most people’s minds when hearing Plait’s talk, gives arguments for his views, arguments that take up much more space than his occasional epithet.  True, many people found the “cracker-crushing” episode offensive, but P.Z. was not doing it just to tick people off.  People seem to have forgotten that he was using the episode to make a strong point about religiously-based persecution.  And that is one episode out of literally thousands of posts by atheists that deal not with impaling crackers, but giving rational arguments.

I think Plait’s argument, like that of “Tom Johnson,” attacks something of a straw man. You can certainly pick out some examples of unwise invective on the part of skeptics, but is the overall tone really that degrading? What percentage of all of our arguments are characterized by calling people baby rapers or brain dead? And where are the data saying that even that sort of invective has led to big setbacks for the movement? There are none, of course, so that arguments of this type are purely subjective impressions.  There are no supporting data.

Now Plait does have a point.  Clearly you’re not going to win friends by, say, talking about evolution in a church while at the same time calling your audience a bunch of superstitious morons.  There is a time and a place for strong language, sarcasm, and insult.  But really, how often do we do that in public, and in places where such behavior would obviously turn people off? If it were that frequent, Tom Johnson wouldn’t have had to make up stories!

Another explanation for Plait’s failure to document his claims is that by doing so he’d have to name prominent skeptics or atheists. (P. Z. again comes to mind.)  And he wouldn’t want to do that because it would anger some of his friends or allies.  I think this is the correct explanation, though of course only Plait knows for sure.  But if this is the case, I give him no kudos.  Atheists and skeptics shouldn’t give their friends a pass if their behavior is part of a trend that is supposedly so counterproductive.  I am a big fan of the National Center for Science Education and its fight to rid our schools of creationism, but I don’t hesitate to call them out for accommodationism.

To take only the latest instance of public behavior by someone often called uncivil, shrill, and impolite, have a look at Richard Dawkins’s television show on faith-based schools in the UK that is posted just below.  I defy anyone to find his arguments anything other than rational and calm, and his behavior toward his religious interlocutors anything other than polite and respectful, even as he opposes everything they stand for.

Plait is a terrific advocate of science and a great public speaker.  His speech was all warm and fuzzy—who could object to it?—and, as he notes, got a lot of support, even making some people cry with relief and gratitude.  But I don’t find it terribly convincing, and certainly not a reason for us “strident” skeptics to change our behavior.  To do that we’d need not just assertions, but evidence.  In its absence, let all of us do what we can, remembering, as we nearly always do, to adjust our tone to our audience.

308 Comments

  1. Posted August 23, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    I’m just back from a brief trip to Stockholm on which my hosts were the publishers Fri Tanke, who are also active in the Swedish Humanist Association (Humanisterna). Christer Sturmark is the head of Fri Tanke and has been the chairman of Humanisterna since 2005. He says outspoken atheists in Sweden – like him, like the people he works with – get exactly this kind of nonsense. “You can’t say that; don’t be so uncivil; how dare you.” It’s depressing to see Phil Plait providing such a vivid example of it, while refusing to give any actual examples but just saying “There are lots and lots and lots” over and over. Yeah right, and there were lots and lots and lots of Jews making blood sacrifices, and lots and lots and lots of niggers pushing white people off sidewalks, and lots and lots and lots of CommOnists taking over the gummint and the movies and the universities. Lots and lots and lots; it’s just that nobody could actually name any.

    Please.

    • Deepak Shetty
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      Im pretty sure he could name some examples (P.Z. called so and so a witless wanker) – But then he’d find himself in the unfortunate position of defending that so and so isn’t in fact a witless wanker.

      • Posted August 23, 2010 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

        Well of course he could – he could find comments on blogs, for instance. But I’m not questioning whether he could or not, I’m pointing out that he didn’t. If he had, for instance, cited a few random blog comments, we could have said you can find snotty blog comments on anything; surely that’s not what all this scapegoating is about. Since he didn’t, we can neither argue nor agree, because we don’t even know exactly what he’s talking about.

        • Tyro
          Posted August 23, 2010 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

          Exactly.

          And since no one thinks they’re dicks, we either use our definition and agree with him or we imagine new definitions. Ultimately, without definitions or examples, no one really know just what the hell he’s talking about.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted August 23, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

            Yes, well, he’s still talking on the slippery-slope he started with.

            But *more slipped*.

        • Deepak Shetty
          Posted August 23, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

          I agree with your point as stated here – I thought your examples implied that he couldn’t find anything (not blog comments – but blog posts by prominent atheists).

        • Badger3k
          Posted August 24, 2010 at 10:32 am | Permalink

          What I want to know is will he hold himself and others of his ilk (Mooney, etc) and theists (Franklin Graham, Ray Comfort, etc) to the same standard? Will he be (politely) dressing down them for their tone?

  2. Posted August 23, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Hahahahahahahaha

    Speaking of Christer Sturmark, check out this video he linked recently -

    http://www.sturmark.se/?p=389

    It’s from that Australian stick-figure series. Hilarious.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      Hilarious – and not even featuring the Swedish Kook. *Hymble myrde thor – nei. Hymble myrde odin – nei. Hymble myrde rahma – nei. Hymble myrde jahwe – nei – HYMBLE MYRDE JAHWE NEI!? BORK, BORK, BORK!!!*

      • Posted August 23, 2010 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

        I think I’ll start saying “bork bork bork” now when I want to exclaim.

  3. Posted August 23, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Most excellent points. I find it especially galling that Phil & co take such strong stances without knowing the relevant psychological research. I mean, FFS, persuasion is an empirical question. (And there is a HUGE literature).

    Give us the evidence!

  4. frankiemouse
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    i don’t have any hard numbers but i could easily come up with numerous examples of people “being a dick”. most, the vast majority, of these kinds of comments have been exactly that comments to a blog post. a few have been by the blogger. that was what i took his talk to be about. maybe that was because this has been my experience.

    what annoys me about such comments is that they are used as confirmation that atheists are evil, mean people. it’s those comments, that hurt people’s feelings that they remember.

    sometimes Mark Edward on the Skepticblog (http://is.gd/ezdg2) comes across a bit rough, but that could just be me. he’s never said anything that i feel would warrant a complaint on my part.

    Dawkins does not pull any punches, but i also think that most, if not all, of the times people site him as being “a dick” they have misunderstood what he was saying, or they look for key “offensive” words but ignore the context.

    Sometimes P Z Myers is a over the top, but i think that’s just his shtick. it’s sometimes the comments on his blog and a few others that some of the people can get nasty and juvenile.

  5. Andrew
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    It’s a flat-out performative contradiction: Phil Plait is trying to persuade certain unnamed atheists to behave in a more conciliatory fashion towards religious people.

    His technique for persuading these people is to try and shame and humiliate them (by calling them “dicks”).

    Ergo, Plait concedes that namecalling (as an element of shaming) is indeed a viable means of persuasion. If it weren’t, he wouldn’t be calling some of his closest allies “dicks.”

  6. Somite
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    This accomodationism is an obvious concerted effort by the TAM organizers and other skeptical powers that be. Since this morning I’ve encountered 1) a “don’t be a dick” talk by the otherwise excellent Rebecca Watson, 2) a list non-offensive and non-religious words to be used instead of “bless you” on the geologic podcast, 3) and the likely unrelated but just as silly position of Ben Goldacre and other British skeptics that maybe homeopathy is not so bad.

    I am just going to go ahead and state that it is counter productive to the skeptical movement to engage in marketing. In large part the skeptical movement should be about showing how facts do not care how we feel about them.

    • Posted August 23, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

      Dunno about the other stuff, but Rebecca’s talk had basically nothing to do with the whole accommodation business (and, at one point, counsels responding to “I’ll pray for you” with “Ask Jesus to stop giving babies leukaemia, too!”).

      • articulett
        Posted August 23, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

        My favorite response to, “I’ll pray for you” is “Thanks, and I’ll THINK for you.”

      • Posted August 23, 2010 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

        Which works — if it’s the “I’ll pray for you” which they use to close out an argument they’re losing — but if everybody has the same response, it gets old, y’know? Variety!

  7. Tyro
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    So there’s this behaviour called “dickishness” which is bad, harms our cause, destroys friendships and alliances and undermines our credibility. Sounds serious!

    If it’s so serious why is he playing it so coy, not giving any definitions or examples?

    If we make our own definitions, we’re like the Christian followers, each making up their own fuzzy, emotive definitions of “spiritual” and “God” and what do you know, their version of God always seems to agree with them. Without clarity, everyone makes up their own definition of “dick”, careful to make sure they aren’t one and no one makes any changes beyond feeling smug at having yet another reason to attack people they dislike.

    Or Phil could treat us like adults and give us definitions and examples. It will mean singling some people and perhaps upsetting them but surely that’s a small price to pay if it leads them to changing their behaviour. We could have a discussion about strategy and tactics and possibly lead to some real insights.

    And…?

    Baaaaaa.

    • Jolo
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      My name is John and I have been a dick. I have actively disagreed with others regarding their religion, homeopathy, 9-11, and vaccinations. In exchange for disagreeing with them I have been called: a 8*tard, an ***hole, a ****ing waste of space and others.

      Why just yesterday someone called me a **tard because I refused to accept his statement that Wakefield’s research has been duplicated (yet he never gave any evidence).

      I always feel that when someone uses insults they already know they have lost the discussion and are looking for a way out.

      • Tyro
        Posted August 23, 2010 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        [chorus] Hi John [/chorus]

        If you call someone an asshole instead of, you know, giving evidence or reasons why they’re wrong then you’re right, that’s pretty lame. Dickish even. Do you suppose that’s what Phil is talking about (and how would we know if he was)?

        And given the toxic levels of ignorance, at what point can we call them assholes or is that always a dick move, no matter how much evidence we present and no matter how much harm they do? Does it matter if we’re talking one-on-one or if we’re in public and have an audience which may be far more receptive than our ostensible opponent? Is it really just a matter of insults or is that a symptom?

        I’ve no clue and Phil hasn’t given us any way of finding out. We’re told to not be a dick but really, can anyone here say just what he means by being a dick?

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 23, 2010 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

        Accommodationist Atheist Steps:

        1. We admitted we were powerless over atheism – that our lives had become unmanageable.

        2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to popularity.

        3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of Framing as we understood It.

        4. Made a facile and fruitless moral inventory of ourselves.

        5. Admitted to Framing, to ourselves and to Mooney the exact nature of our shortcomings.

        6. Were entirely ready to have Framing remove all these signs of character.

        7. Humbly asked It to remove our shortcomings.

        8. Made a list of all persons that had *dicked*, and became willing to ostracize them all.

        9. Made direct ostracism to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would help them or others.

        10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we came up short promptly buried it.

        11. Sought through cold reading and ostracism to improve our conscious contact with Framing as we understood it, praying only for knowledge of Its will for us and the power to carry that out.

        12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this “don’t be a dick” message to atheists and to bury these same principles in all our own affairs.

        • Josh Slocum
          Posted August 23, 2010 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

          That is epic!

        • Michael Kingsford Gray
          Posted August 23, 2010 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

          The Mooney Cult?

      • Deepak Shetty
        Posted August 23, 2010 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

        Its situational isnt it?
        Say you meet a creationist – to directly call him a rude name , well it might be uncivil. Same creationist lobbying to have his crap taught in schools – well borderline, probably deserves something rude. Same creationist in position of power actively passing legislation regarding teaching creationism in schools? – big a$$0.

        At what time does civil behavior override truth?

        Do you disagree?

        • Jolo
          Posted August 25, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

          I think the bigger issue is that someone else is deciding you are being a dick. If I, as a dick, argue that not only is creationist wrong to teach in schools as science as it is harmful to science and to the children’s learning. Is this then dickish behaviour? If it is to one outsider’s perspective, but not another, how dickish am I?

          Who decides if I am being dickish?

          • Michael Kingsford Gray
            Posted August 25, 2010 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

            Phil & Rebecca, apparently.

            • Jolo
              Posted August 27, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

              Well I will send all my replies to them from now on for approval.

  8. articulett
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    The Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that the biggest dicks are the least likely to identify themselves as the dicks in Phil’s speech, while less dickish folks might wonder if he was talking about them.

  9. Posted August 23, 2010 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    Ugh. Talk about sounding like “Tom Johnson” – from Plait’s third post –

    Eventually I heard from others who told me there were several people in the audience who were crying because they had felt so alone. Many were feeling so isolated from the skeptical community — and had experienced so many encounters with other skeptics who were rude, boorish, insulting, and dismissive — that they were seriously considering leaving the movement altogether.

    I also heard from hundreds — hundreds — of people thanking me for what I said. They had seen others be jerks, or had been jerks themselves, and were contrite about it.

    Really? It sounds more like people talking each other and themselves into a good old self-pity fest, to me.

    • Josh Slocum
      Posted August 23, 2010 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

      Really. It’s cringe-makingly embarrassing. *Crying* because people question your theistic beliefs? Jeezis. Even if it is true (and I’m nowhere near convinced these people have been “savaged” or treated so abominably as Phil asserts), it’s pure bathos.

    • Notagod
      Posted August 24, 2010 at 8:00 am | Permalink

      …and so Phil reached in his pocket and found that he had only brought two tissues. How could two tissues possibly dry hundreds and hundreds of eyes, how could he possibly sooth all those hurts, but he had to try. And it came to pass that he did take those two tissues and did give out pieces to each that came unto him. And as he gave the pieces they did dry more and more eyes and the pieces did seem to be endless in number and the more he did break them the more little tissues he did have. And it did come to pass that his two tissues had dried every eye yay even every one.

      Suck it,

      jesus christ

  10. Danniel Soares
    Posted August 24, 2010 at 1:41 am | Permalink

    Wow. I almost believed for a moment that religions/supernatural beliefs were a new thing, a menace that got us all by surprise, and that now, after millennia of prosperous scientific developments, science was suddenly on the brink of collapse, after a brief neglect of seemingly innocent fringe ideas, then fairy tales, that went creeping unnoticed, but suddenly revealed its true face, and now were strangling science to death with its powerful tentacles of ignorance.

    The whole accomodationwussies versus the thunderdome gladiators of atheoscience “debate” is ridiculous.

    There is a niche, a time and place for different approaches. People have been believing in ghosts since the dawn of humankind and still the acceptance of science have been progressing steadily over the centuries, at a rate that impressively fast, given how new it really is, in the historical scale. And atheism, some of that perhaps as a consequence of that, is also reaching the highest numbers ever.

    So… I think that would be a good idea to just relax… realize that science isn’t about to be abolished. Go beat (metaphorically) the hell out of some deist-inclined agnostic friend who brags that his views are somewhat backed by science, and have fun with that. But don’t be so upset that many, many people, think that’s perfectly plausible that the supernatural beings their parents told them about is real, as is electricity and lots of seemingly fantastic stuff science tells is real too. Specially if they accept vaccines and evolution. Actually, tell about them to someone who believes in the same god, but questions evolution and/or vaccines, or whatever. My gut feeling is that the odds are that here the “all or nothing”, no-concessions defense of science will be less effective to the advancement of science than a more bland, accomodationist, wussy-pussy, coward approach.

    Do the champions of science have some scientific research to point otherwise, that the more ones confronts the beliefs someone holds as the most important, the more likely this person is to accept the scientific view on some matter?

    That would be a nice addition to the “relax” suggestion. Some googling about the actual scientific efficacy of one approach or the other, or possibly related clues.

    But perhaps… that’s not quite the point of the whole “non-acommodationist”. Perhaps, and I hope not, it’s not the advancement of science that’s intrinsically valued here, but rather only of this purist acceptance. That is, thiking that does not matter that creationism or whatever recedes, if these would-be-creationists would instead, still be theists, or even deists… that would be a filthy, impure scientific view that they would have, and that worths nothing.

    I don’t believe that it is really the case, I hope it’s not… but sometimes that’s what it seems like. I don’t really tend to go on looking about the last not news on the “accommodationist or not” debate, but I’ve stumble on that more times I’ve wanted to, and never, not even once, the issue at stake was what is really effective to promote science, with a scientific backing, rather than just an idealistic discourse. Somewhat akin to that of (many) anarcho-capitalists in a way, defending more some sort of utopia where ideals reign in all glory, without much concern to the real world.

    Gosh. I can’t remember right now some sort of “accomodationist” statement or text that I thought that could somehow backfire, open the doors to a wider acceptance of superstition and ignorance. There must be, all this fuss over the last years can’t be based on nothing really important, or could it?

    • Michael Kingsford Gray
      Posted August 24, 2010 at 2:41 am | Permalink

      You are being an über-dick.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 25, 2010 at 1:49 am | Permalink

      *We* were relaxed. It was Plait that tried to unduly influence our behavior. Going against the basis of your comment, btw, which leaves you no foot to stand on here.

      As for the “different approaches”, maybe you should read the thread. Comment #2 has us discussing whether Plait should say “don’t be a dick” in own circumstances. Comment #5 has us vouching for “different approaches”.

      And finally, on atheist message, cf “abolished”, “beat”: strawman.

      I must agree with Michael: You are being an über-dick. And again _for no good reason_. [/holds nose while taking out the trash]

    • gillt
      Posted August 27, 2010 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      Danniel Soares:

      “My gut feeling is that [...]

      Do the champions of science have some scientific research to point otherwise [...]

      You obviously consider empirical evidence the gold standard here. And for the life of me I cannot fathom why you wouldn’t hold your own argument to that same standard. Are you being honest with yourself?

  11. Posted August 24, 2010 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    My guess is that the viewpoints of Tom Johnson, Phil Plait, and others were formed by appropriating—uncritically, unconsciously—the views of religious persons who speak out against criticism of religion. When there is no substance other than “hey don’t do that,” their arguments tend to aim at the impoliteness of their opponents.

    In the case of Tom Johnson, he attended a Christian college. Whether or not he is an atheist as he claims, he undoubtedly often heard from his peers and educators about how uncouth it is to criticize religion. It is not surprising that he incorporated this into his worldview.

    Plait and others probably have a worthy motivation to be fair-minded and to listen to critics. Their mistake is in appropriating the views of critics which are not grounded in evidence. They are rightly not so fair-minded when it comes to the proponents of astrology, homeopathy, global warming denialism, and other such beliefs. How is a virgin birth so different from those things?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 25, 2010 at 1:55 am | Permalink

      In Plait’s case it is easy to think that he hears “sorry Dave, I can’t do that” in a monotone when atheists protests against him being a dick.

      Ironically the black monolith makes a good god impression.

    • gillt
      Posted August 27, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      TJ goes to a Christian college? This is news to me. This increases the likelihood that he was an Xian crusader on a smear campaign against prominent atheists.

  12. H.H.
    Posted August 24, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    She was crying because what I said was something she had longed to hear from someone, anyone, in the skeptic community for years: that we need to be less antagonistic, and more inclusive. When we exclude someone for one belief they may have, we are losing them despite whatever other skeptical drive they might possess.

    And yet this woman was at a TAM talk. Why does Phil assume we were pushing this woman away from skepticism? What if she was *this close* to giving up whatever vestige of superstition she still clung to when Phil came along and assured her that she needn’t bother? Tears of relief. I get to keep my woo! Thanks, Phil!

    • Tyro
      Posted August 24, 2010 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      It’s a good thing that Penn & Teller weren’t there, those guys are such DICKS.

      Oh wait…

      Ya know, with all this wondering whether PZ or Dawkins are dicks, has anyone considered that P & T are as close to dicks as public atheists get? They shout insult, ridicule believers and aren’t hiding in the dark but do this year after year on television. And in exchange for their extreme dickitude, they are honoured guests at TAM and other sceptical meetups.

      So how does Phil Plait react to their brand on insult mongering? He calls them “awesome” ( http://twitter.com/BadAstronomer/statuses/21773686185), appears on their show and describes their show as:

      just found out someone put that brief segment on YouTube. So if you haven’t seen it, here you go. WARNING (and I mean it): This clip contains very bad language. A lot of it. And rude gestures. And one short gag that will probably offend a lot of Christians. And some phenomenal dumbosity. And Penn swears a lot. A lot.

      But it’s really really funny.

      Yup, P & T act like dicks and Plait absolutely revels in it.

      • Michael Kingsford Gray
        Posted August 24, 2010 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

        Do you mean that a goddly-coddling faitheist has acted in a blithely hypocritical manner?
        Surely not.

      • articulett
        Posted August 24, 2010 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

        Twitter link doesn’t exist… there’s no link to video.

        • Tyro
          Posted August 24, 2010 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

          The closing ) was added to the URL by accident:
          http://twitter.com/BadAstronomer/statuses/21773686185

          The video link seems to be down but his original post discussing the Bullshit episode is at:

          http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2007/02/01/penn-teller-the-moon-hoax-and-me-part-i/

          • Somite
            Posted August 24, 2010 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

            From the post:

            “I just found out someone put that brief segment on YouTube. So if you haven’t seen it, here you go. WARNING (and I mean it): This clip contains very bad language. A lot of it. And rude gestures. And one short gag that will probably offend a lot of Christians. And some phenomenal dumbosity. And Penn swears a lot. A lot.
            But it’s really really funny.”

            He may have changed his mind since but more likely it reflects the double standard between religious people and moon hoaxers.

            • articulett
              Posted August 24, 2010 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

              Yes, he even goes out of the way to soften any insult Christians might feel but not other woo.

              Phil is “keeping two sets of books,” and he thinks “being a dick” is not doing so.

              He’s unwilling to examine whether he may be confirming a bias he’s picked up from the “belief in belief” crowd.

              I want to ask him, “Phil how would you know if you were wrong about this “increasing vitriol” or wrong about it “hurting the cause”? It seems he’s presumed both premises with an iota of evidence for either.

  13. baz
    Posted August 24, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Richard, you make good points, but I’m wondering if you’ve overlooked the geographical and cultural divide between your world and Plait’s. America has a far higher concentration of stupid, and Americans haven’t been exposed to the tradition of satire and irony that we enjoy in these fair isles, that slowly rust away the shackles of religious tradition. It’s all so much younger and fresher over there, and emotions are rawer (yes, Ophelia, they are far more prone to indulgent self-pity, too).

    Just a thought.

  14. Andrew
    Posted August 24, 2010 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Phil is a great science communicator but lately his accomodationist bent has become rather annoying and the resembalwnce to mooneys arguments has to make one wonder if he’s positioning himself for a Tempelton gig…

  15. Posted August 25, 2010 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Well, I see that after demanding to be shown examples of dickishness in this post, you have done us the favour of providing one in the concluding sentence of your next! Thanks for saving us the trouble.(Not that it would have been hard; everyone is a dick sometimes and if you haven’t noticed that by now you can’t be as observant as you think you are.)

    • articulett
      Posted August 25, 2010 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, like you’re being a dick now. Thanks for the example! Now we know what is “being dickish” means to you. And we know what “being dickish” means to me.

      Dickishness is clearly in the eye of the beholder.

      Surely, if people think certain blog writers are dicks should avoid reading those blogs (and then writing dickish commentary on them)since it doesn’t seem to be helping further any goal.

      • Posted August 25, 2010 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

        See, that wasn’t hard. Now we are up to three examples of dickishness in as many posts.

        Actually sometimes I enjoy being a dick, and in the appropriate context it does little harm.

        I gather from the comments that most here are committed evangelical atheists, but that at least some of them are not without intelligence (and all are clearly used to fairly harsh forms of argumentation).

        So, although I agree with Plait’s point that being perceived as a dick can reduce one’s effectiveness in convincing the convertible, I don’t think that my own dickishness will undermine any effectiveness that I might have in this context.

        (Does that make four? I don’t think so, but of course perhaps you might.)

        • articulett
          Posted August 25, 2010 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

          So Phil’s speech telling people not to be dicks isn’t going to be making you any less of a dick?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 25, 2010 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      If Graziano thinks that religion for everyone is simply is a supportive community and not a set of beliefs about what exists, he needs to get out of the lab more.

      Here, let me fix that for you:

      If Graziano thinks that religion for everyone is simply is a supportive community and not a set of beliefs about what exists, he needs a larger sample size, say, get out of the lab more.

      See what a difference in tone! (¬_¬)

      You know, since Plait made it so clear it is a slippery-slope argument in the context of critique, why did you have to repeat Plait’s Phallacy?

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 25, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, that was “Phil’s Phallacy” in the original comment.

    • Michael Kingsford Gray
      Posted August 25, 2010 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

      One of the main objections that I have to Phil’s (implicit) definition of what constitutes ‘being a dick’, is that it ONLY applies to holders of the Religious delusion, (not any other delusion, where the sufferers appear to be fair game), and even staunchly excludes certain individuals, such as Penn & Teller, whom he allows to be in-yer-face offensive to believers.

      The triple standard of inconsistency is both mind-boggling, and completely unexplained, leaving gnu atheists to merely guess what is going on.

  16. kitz
    Posted August 25, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Well Tim Farley’s site, “WHat’s the Harm” uses anectdotal evidence. Pretty good use I think.

    Also, it’s amazing how people seem to assume this was directed to the “big names”. OK guys get over your egos. Go to the bar (yeah come down and hang with the regular people at TAM) and you’ll see lots of examples. Plus people explaining how they can’t go to Thanksgiving dinner as they grandmother INSISTS on grace and “I said we could say grace if she gave me 10 minutes to talk about how there is no God, and then grandmother started crying… sheez my family are morons”. It’s the day to day interactions. Dawkins said at TAM that he rarely sees or interacts with anyone that does not think like he does. (during the question and answer bit). That’s his choice, but it’s a wee bit like fundies only hanigng with their own kind. Then the entire “the number one problem with the UK is Islam” (even in moderate forms) and there was a sense of unease. Islam or Islamics? It wasn’t being a dick so much as being spooky. No one said anything about a solution to this number one problem, I’m sure education and teaching critical thinking skills wasn’t the entire solution to this PROBLEM. SOmeone joked that Dawkins supported the immigration policy of Arizona, but that’s because he thought Catholicism was the number one problem facing the Southwest.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 26, 2010 at 5:51 am | Permalink

      We all acknowledge that religion is a problem in the daily life. What we don’t agree on is short- and long term solutions.

  17. kitz
    Posted August 25, 2010 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    OK Anne Coulter and Richard Dawkins have a lot in common with their view of Islam. They also both have best selling books. They also don’t believe they are dicks. But, I don’t think she converts too many to the Republican right wing crowd, even though I do think she can be devestatingly witty and funny.

    Now, are her books as well researched and as erudite as Dawkins? No way! So refering to Dawkins and Hitchens as “our Coulter” is a disservice and frankly…being a dick. It works both ways, you can’t say “Dawkins is our Coulture” and not be insulting.

  18. efrique
    Posted August 25, 2010 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    What is your goal?

    Indeed the critical question.

    The goal, surely, is not to convince obstinate fools, because they are beyind convincing and politeness works no better than vitriol, and maybe worse.

    So when faced with an obstinate fool, the goal is to convince not your counterpart, but the fence-sitter. The person who might listen to the arguments of an obstinate fool and perhaps be inclined to say “Hmm, I guess that makes sense”.

    In that situation, doing less than showing foolishness for what it is would be at best a waste of time, and is likely dangerous.

    You cannot leave the field to charlatans and ignoramuses in the name of politeness.

    Phil is inconsistent. He has excoriated fools himself often enough in the past.

  19. echidna
    Posted August 27, 2010 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Phil was being a dick when he commanded so much attention, without even giving the specifics of what he was talking about, leaving everyone guessing.

    Can you imagine a science talk done this way?

    “I have observed some behaviour that I think is counter-productive. Thankyou.”

    Phil, where is the evidence? Where are the examples? It’s just time wasting otherwise.

  20. hexag1
    Posted August 27, 2010 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    Here’s the Medawar review that Dawkins was mentioning:

    http://www.cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/Medawar/phenomenon-of-man.html

  21. Peter veitch
    Posted September 6, 2010 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    it was dawkin’s the god delusion that started me on the path away from superstition, thanks Richard, I was irked / troubled / challenged even by the title god DELUSION , this basically forced me to confront this idea. I was so convinced that Dawkins must be deluded, until I actualy read the book ( and many after ) . holding hands is sweet, thinking is better. direct plain simple questioning, no need to insult people but open season on silly ideas


22 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Are we Phalluses? [...]

  2. [...] Skepticism and tone Jerry Coyne gives his reaction to Phil Plait’s “don’t be a dick” speech. The speech is 31 minutes long and can be found [...]

  3. [...] along with his recent Amazing Meeting speech, which one commenter on Jerry Coyne’s site has summarized as: The worst part of all this was watching Phil resort to several tactics that skeptics actually [...]

  4. [...] Are we phalluses? I finally got a chance to watch Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” speech from The Amazing Meeting [...] [...]

  5. [...] of people out there who have exactly, as in, verbatim, the same message.One of them is Phil Plait. Jerry Coyne takes him to task for it, and Richard Dawkins also weighs in, calling it out for what it is, accomodationist [...]

  6. [...] up. Jerry has some thoughts on Phil Plait’s famous best-selling Booker Prize-winning Library of Congress-app…. One thought is that it sounded a good deal too much like “Tom Johnson” and his Amazing [...]

  7. [...] fleshing out his TAM8 speech with several blog articles, and Richard Dawkins weighing in with his two cents. While I can appreciate the sharing of opinions, I do find it quite strange how the numerous [...]

  8. [...] Be a Dick, an interesting counterpoint to it on Jerry Coyne’s blog, with a post titled Are We Phalluses?, and Skepdude’s post The Skeptic Delusion?, I’d like to offer some commentary of my own [...]

  9. [...] Are we phalluses? [...]

  10. [...] are bad for society.  There’s no evidence for that, either.  Do let us remember, as Richard Dawkins pointed out here, that much of our criticism is an attempt not to influence the objects of our opprobrium, but third [...]

  11. [...] in the skeptical community regarding their politeness to “believers” called Are We Phalluses? Basically, Now if examples of this behavior are “trivially easy” to find, why didn’t he give [...]

  12. [...] about his “Don’t Be a Dick” speech at TAM 8, and because of Jerry Coyne’s response to those posts. (Note: the first link contains a video of the talk, but if you’re pressed for [...]

  13. [...] Dawkins, commenting at Why Evolution Is True, on the “atheists should stop being assertive” (aka “don’t be a [...]

  14. [...] about in three parts. Alternate views you might want to look into include Jerry Coyne’s critique (see also Dawkins’ comment on that post) and [...]

  15. [...] places, the effectiveness debate has bogged down in red herrings. For example, Richard Dawkins complained that Plait naively presumed, throughout his lecture, that the person we are ridiculing is the one [...]

  16. [...]  It’s just that the Dick Proponents, where I’ve found myself along with PZ and Dawkins, think that Phil should have been clearer about what he thought was appropriate or not, and the [...]

  17. [...] Oh, noes! P.Z. Myers gives an apology to someone he misquoted! How am I to know my way around the «War About Nice», then? Apocalypse may be upon us. Next thing, you’ll tell me that Phil Plait can be rude to [...]

  18. [...] the JRF for donations. Two, the ‘Don’t be a Dick” thing, which has been discussed ad nauseam lately.It’s knocking down a strawman, as has been shown a million times, and I’m mainly [...]

  19. [...] me quote Jerry Coyne responding to Phil Plait’s talk that similarly criticized the “dickish” attitude [...]

  20. [...] “Don’t be a dick” talk sparked a rash of debate on the internet.  Even Richard Dawkins joined in the fray, saying: “ … Plait naively presume[s], throughout his lecture, that the [...]

  21. [...] Dawkins penned a comment on Jerry Coyne's site in response: As Jerry said, Plait quoted no examples of skeptics who scream [...]

  22. [...] Diamonds A comment from Dawkins The War Over [...]

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