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Jul 15 2010

On the Utility of Dicks

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, I was young and somewhat naive. Libraries had always been very good to me, sometimes when no one else was, and I trusted them. See, they had these sections labeled “nonfiction,” where I found confirmation that the world was a weird and wonderful place. Parapsychology, ghost stories–all of them had to be true because the library told me they weren’t made up stories. They weren’t fiction.

A high school psychology class reinforced that belief, talking about J. B. Rhine’s experiments. Experiments! Science confirmed what the library had told me. And as I went through college and learned more about science and experimental design, parapsychology garnered more legitimacy.

Then a friend gave me Flim Flam. James Randi told me how people had lied to me under the guise of nonfiction, under the guise of science. He was, in fact, kind of a dick about it. That’s not a very nice book by any definition of the word. It uses name-calling. It sneers.

But oh, it was exactly what I needed. I needed it both for the information it gave me and for the anger and vitriol. Without Randi’s vitriol, I wouldn’t have been able to make the clean break in thinking that I did. If he hadn’t been so clearly and visibly and sometimes nastily angry about the perversion of systems that were meant to uncover and convey the best knowledge we can have, I’d have been faced with the choice between a more classical skepticism, doubting everything that came my way, and clinging to the idea that what I believed had to be true.

Randi’s anger defined a space where I could safely land. It said, “This is a place worth defending, where we can get at truth if we work at it–as long as we are honest and can keep the frauds out.” It was something to move toward, something more than the self-annihilation that Phil Plait described skepticism as being in his talk at The Amaz!ng Meeting last weekend. Randi’s anger showed me the value of that space more eloquently than any utilitarian description ever could have.

That’s the closest thing I have to a conversion story I have. It’s also why I was a touch disappointed in Phil’s speech, although I appreciated most of it. He asked how many of us used to believe in woo, and he asked how many of us had been converted by people being angry and mean to us. He didn’t ask how many of us had been converted by someone being angry and mean on our behalf or on behalf of the ideals of skepticism.

I’d have raised my hand. High.

There are things worth being angry about. There are things that, if they don’t make us angry, I’m not sure we’re human. There are things worth showing that anger over.

Nor am I arguing with Phil when I say that. One of the pieces of his text that hasn’t been quoted that I’ve seen, except by me on Twitter, is, “Anger is a very potent weapon, and we need that weapon, but we need to be excruciatingly careful how we use it.” Remember this.

People who are talking about how being mean or angry doesn’t teach people to think critically or evaluate evidence are missing half the point. Skepticism is only partly process. It’s also a set of values. Good luck getting someone to put in the time and effort required for critical analysis if they don’t understand why objective truth is worthwhile. Expect to be told to lighten up and go get some sunshine if the person you’re talking to doesn’t understand–viscerally–the harm done by relying on unworthy sources of “knowledge.”

Communicating the values is every bit as important as communicating the methods, and we communicate values by modeling them. That means showing our anger sometimes when our values are perverted by others and presented to us as caricatures of themselves. It doesn’t mean going berserk and mowing down everything in our paths indiscriminately, but it doesn’t mean suppressing our emotions either, even the less than sanitary ones.

Note that once again, this doesn’t contradict what Phil said. Nor does it contradict what PZ Myers has had to say on the topic, despite a chunk of the Twitterverse (many of whom were not at TAM, ahem) crying, “Fight! Fight!” as soon as Phil’s speech was done. Nor does it contradict the studies that show that–in general and on average–particular types of communication are more effective in shifting opinions than others.

The problem is that I’m not in general or on average. I’m me, with my own set of quirks and reactions. And when I came across Flim Flam, I was already someone who shared the values of skepticism. I just thought the people who were investigating all this fascinating phenomena were too. It took Randi getting very angry to show me otherwise.

It took him being a dick. And I thank him for that.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Jason Thibeault

    Okay, I've moved Flim Flam well up on my to-read list. You've put why I employ sarcasm in my posts more eloquently than I ever could. Reality is worth defending, it's worth getting angry about. And some people ARE converted by the angry ones.

  2. 2
    CyberLizard

    Mostly, I just like dicks *shrugs*

  3. 3
    sunnyskeptic

    Nice post! I haven't gotten to mine yet, I am trying to work my way through the week chronologically and I've only gotten through the first workshop so far. I suck. lol. :) I was telling Vic, I remember being a kid and believing in something kinda like Chupacabra or something, and my dad laughed at me. I remembered thinking "Hey, if my dad can laugh at this and make fun of me, maybe the other stories in my Fortean Times book aren't true…" And what do you know. So basically, my road to skepticism was paved with ridicule, and I wouldn't have it any other way. :)

  4. 4
    universalheretic

    Randi's tell it like it is approach always impressed me since I was a kid. I knew he was passionate about what he was talking about and that I should pay attention. I even liked it when he told the reception crowd to shut up, though I was one of the talkers! And Flim Flam is great!

  5. 5
    Stephanie Zvan

    Jason, I should note again that studies suggest that more people react better to not angry–and that it's harder to do (but maybe easier to do well) in many ways. Phil's speech was very good. It advocated being strategic, which is often playing to the averages. I wrote this because a lot of people are talking about the speech as though he said there was no strategic value to anger, which he didn't.

  6. 6
    Stephanie Zvan

    Crystal, I'm looking forward to your take. Vic, I'm entertained by the fact that Randi seems to have reached an age and a status at which the criticisms he received for being "mean" seem to have been forgotten.

  7. 7
    The Defiant Marshmallow

    This reminds of why I like Flim Flam and why it helped shape the way I behave as a skeptic. Long before I knew of P&T, long before Randi was a skeptic household name, he jolted me to action and out of my complacent, benign version of passive skepticism. Well done.

  8. 8
    DuWayne Brayton

    Shockingly, I definitely think there is a profound utility to anger. First because strong emotion can be an excellent vehicle for persuasion. But also because it is cathartic and catharsis is fuckingwell important too goddamnit!!!!I think it is important to avoid trying to thrive off of anger. It not only can harm one's credibility, it can also shape the brain in ways that are ultimately quite harmful. But in both of those contexts, I think it really depends on how it is used and expressed.I think that Penn Jillette is a very good example of this. George Carlin was also a good example. Tempering anger with bemusement, even cynical bemusement can make a huge difference in both how a person is perceived and how it affects them.Personally, I tend to vacillate between straightforward anger, bemused anger and outright depression at the stupid. So I try to temper my cynicism with positive portraits of humanity and the nature of the universe. It is sometimes just comforting to know that on some scales the stupid is transient and has even less impact on the universe as a whole, than even homeopathic remedies.It's comforting to know that no matter how badly we fuck up, it won't likely matter in ten million years.

  9. 9
    Dan J

    I find myself (on most occasions) beset by the types of people who will never be reached by reason. Many of them will come right out and say as much. I feel I have no recourse than to be a dick. I may even resort to "raging prick" once in a while.There are also times when I just nod my head and say, "That's nice." Sometimes it's not worth my time or attention. Some people will never be reached by reason.

  10. 10
    Cujo359

    You're the quote of the day. Go celebrate!

  11. 11
    Prosfilaes

    Personally, Randi's attitude has struck me wrongly several times. He called out a herbal medication for having a bad reaction with MAOIs, even though MAOIs have a bad reaction with about everything, from aspirin on up. If he'd been calm about it, it would have been one thing, but sneering about it makes you look less rational. On another, he posted a Wal-Mart internal ad for homeopathy, and took the opportunity to complain that they were targeting such helplessly stupid people. Just because you work a menial job, doesn't mean you're stupid, and it annoys people who do work such jobs to accuse them of that.So, yeah, dickish behavior can have good effects, but it makes being careful about what you target and how more important.

  12. 12
    Stephanie Zvan

    Oh, yes. You won't ever catch me downplaying the importance of behaving strategically.

  1. 13
    Portrait of Deceit » Almost Diamonds

    [...] A long time ago, James Randi did something rather important for me. He lied. He didn’t lie to me, but he made it clear he would if it would help me sort out the truth. I’ve written before about how important this was to me. [...]

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