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.