Why not be a dick?

Censord DickI’ve been hearing something about a Phil Plait talk that became a meme under the heading “don’t be a dick,” but didn’t feel informed enough to comment until I found a partial transcript of the talk. (HT: Jason Rosenau). I got thinking about this, and concluded that for such a commonsensical-sounding thesis, it’s amazing how weak his case is.

Here’s how he starts off:

Instead of relying on the merits of the arguments, which is what critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning is about, it seems that vitriol and venom are on the rise.

Let me ask you a question: how many of you here today used to believe in something — used to, past tense — whether it was flying saucers, psychic powers, religion, anything like that? You can raise your hand if you want to. [lots of hands go up] Not everyone is born a skeptic. A lot of you raised your hand. I’d even say most of you, from what I can tell.

Now let me ask you a second question: how many of you no longer believe in those things, and you became a skeptic, because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot, brain-damaged, and a retard? [Very few hands go up]

Okay, obviously that kind of behavior is unlikely to be productive. The problem is that, to my knowledge, literal screaming in-your-face name calling sessions are rare. I’ve never seen one take place, even during a game of bait-the-street-preacher.

Things that could be called vitriol and venom, sure. But it’s not clear at all that they’re on the rise. Worse, even though they seem obviously negative, it’s hard to find much reason to think they do much harm.

First of all, skeptical people being dicks has a very long and honorable history. David Hume and Bertrand Russell, two of the greatest free-thinking philosophers who’ve ever lived, were also world-class penners of dickery. Here’s Hume:

Were there a religion (and we may suspect Mahometanism of this inconsistence) which sometimes painted the Deity in the most sublime colours, as the creator of heaven and earth; sometimes degraded him so far to a level with human creatures as to represent him wrestling with a man, walking in the cool of the evening, showing his back parts, and descending from heaven to inform himself of what passes on earth; while at the same time it ascribed to him suitable infirmities, passions, and partialities, of the moral kind: That religion, after it was extinct, would also be cited as an instance of those contradictions, which arise from the gross, vulgar, natural conceptions of mankind, opposed to their continual propensity, towards flattery and exaggeration. Nothing indeed would prove more strongly the divine origin of any religion, than to find (and happily this is the case with Christianity) that it is free from a contradiction, so incident to human nature.

and Russell:

My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race. I cannot, however, deny that it has made some contributions to civilization. It helped in early days to fix the calendar, and it caused Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses with such care that in time they became able to predict them. These two services I am prepared to acknowledge, but I do not know of any others.

Somehow, skepticism and freethought managed to survive having such dicks for advocates. But then again, Hume and Russell tempered their attacks with irony, and on the whole managed to retain an air of being refined, sophisticated Brits and not at all the sort of people who scream insults into someone’s face.

So maybe Phil wasn’t talking about such sophisticates. Maybe he was talking about the sort of people who compare the beliefs they want to debunk to belief in fairies. Like James Randi. Okay, so I’m not the first one to make this point but I’m going to repeat it, because Randi is such an excellent example.

At his height, Randi had an enormous reputation for being a dick. I once heard one of his targets refer to him as a “hatchet man,” and even Carl Sagan (very politely) called Randi a dick in The Demon Haunted World. But not only did this not prevent him from being extremely effective in his exposes of Uri Geller and Peter Popoff, but Randi’s main contribution arguably was that he was willing to be such a dick.

When Geller was big, there were lots of other magicians who had the expertise to see through Geller, but a lot of them were saying “oh, leave him alone, what he’s doing is silly and harmless.” Part of Randi’s contribution was to get up and say, “no, he’s a fraud and a disgrace to honest magicians.” And to point out that the excuses being made for Geller were similar to the excuses Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had made for belief in fairies. Would Randi have been more effective if he triangulated his way to a position like “I tend to think that Geller is more than a bit silly and might possibly do some harm”?

So when Phil talks about a rise in “vitriol and venom” he has to be talking about someone worse than Randi. At this point he only thing I can think that he might be referring to is the fact that yes, the internet does provide a platform for people who have nothing better to do than call people idiots all day, and for whom anonymity removes all fear of doing just that. In other words, there are people within the atheist internez who act like /b/tards. However, as someone who spends a lot of time on atheist websites, I don’t encounter these people very often. Literally none of them ever build a following. (You don’t have to like the Rational Response Squad, but no, they are not an example of this.)

So much for that. But one other bit of the transcript got me thinking:

I think I can sum up my points like this: first, always ask yourself what your goal is. […] Is this argument necessary? What is your goal? What are you trying to accomplish? Before you talk, before you leave a comment, before you engage a pseudoscientist, before you raise your hand, before you sign that email, ask yourself: is this going to help? Is this going to allow me to achieve my goal? And you also need to ask yourself: will this impede me from achieving my goal? Is this just to make me feel better, or am I trying to change the world?

Again, this sounds commonsensical. But again, when you think about this, it makes very little sense. When has it helped to pause before speaking to ask yourself “will this help to change the world?” Who ever knows what the long range effect of an utterance on the world as a whole will be? Who even knows in retrospect what the long term effects of some particular utterance were? On the other hand, in retrospect it seems an awful lot like we make progress through people speaking their mind without worrying overmuch about the long term effects of their utterance.

So, as long as you’re not risking offending relatives or losing your job, don’t worry too much about the effects of particular instances of speaking your mind. Seriously, you often can’t know which means you’ll go crazy if you do. And it’s the negative reactions that people always shove in your face, which can give you a skewed perspective. I hate to think how history would have turned out if humanity’s great thinkers had taken that kind of shit seriously. But if you make a habit of speaking your mind whenever you’re likely to get away with it, you can go to bed at night knowing that you’re participating in something that will have a good effect, in the long run, probably.

Note: after I figured out what I wanted to say with this post, I found this post suggesting that Phil’s speech was a response to problems on the JREF boards. Aside from the fact that I think my post is more interesting if we ignore that possibility, if that’s what was up with Phil’s speech, it should have been directed towards members of that board, not vaguely aimed at the skeptical community as a whole.

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  1. The “partial transcript” link appears to be broken: in the page source, there’s an extraneous “br” element with what appears to be PHP code. I think you may have added a newline in the wrong place, and that got things mangled.

  2. Chris Hallquist