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Dicks, Skeptics and the Problem of Eternal September

Phil Plait has finally posted the video of his speech from TAM (okay, it’s been just over a month, but I enjoy being spoiled by the speed of the internet), and some of the reactions prompt me to finally write about why I think his message is an important one. I’ve already written about why I think “dicks” are important in skeptical outreach. The tl;dr version is that communicating skepticism isn’t just communicating knowledge and techniques but also communicating values, which I’ve also written about here. Sometimes we can’t hold those values and not be incredibly angry, and sometimes that anger communicates those values in ways that nothing else can.

Note that there are a bunch of “sometimes” in that statement. As much as I tend to qualify my statements in the interest of accuracy, that’s not what’s going on here. Those are very specific “sometimes,” with implications for communication.

A couple of my friends commented in response to “On the Utility of Dicks” that they were simply dicks. As much as I love them, and I do, that’s not really helpful–or meant to be. Being a dick in general (which is overstating their behavior anyway) doesn’t communicate anything except that you’re a dick. It stops being a tool when you can’t put it down. At that point, it becomes just one more thing keeping your hands busy when you could be doing useful work.

If your dickishness is going to help you communicate the values of skepticism, it has to relate, directly and immediately, to the circumstances that warrant anger. If it isn’t suited to the context, or if others can’t see how it’s suited to the context, it communicates nothing.

But there’s another problem with wielding dickishness as a tool. This:

On the one hand, okay, but on the other hand, as a general rule, the other side is not arguing in good faith. They are having fun toying with the skeptics, making them work hard for no real gain. To them, misbehaving is fun. When their current scheme falls apart, they come back with another one. None of them actually believe what they have faith in.

I’d say very few if any holds need be barred when dealing with the “gotcha” questions true believers so often think they cleverly can get by with.


Life is too short to waste on the “gottcha” folks. Ridicule is all they deserve.

Now, before I talk about why that’s a problem, let me provisionally endorse this statement from PZ Myers.

Talk to us ‘dicks’ sometime, and you’ll discover that when we get in someone’s face and rip into them hard, we already know that we’re not trying to convert them to our way of thinking. We actually are smarter than that.

What we’re doing is having a gladiatorial match for the benefit of the spectators. Our goal is to show how bad the other guy’s argument is in a public demonstration. And that’s a good strategy, because no one wants to be that other guy.

That is exactly what we think we’re doing. It is even, for some variable but large percentage of the time, what some of us are actually doing. The problem is when we get it wrong. And we will inevitably get it wrong.

What’s the difference between a charlatan and an example of skepticism’s own Eternal September problem? That’s the critical question in deciding how willing you are to decide that someone “deserves” bad treatment.

What’s the difference between someone who engages in an argument in bad faith in an attempt to spread their views and someone who has internalized the views of such a person but is willing to find out what might be wrong with them? What’s the difference between the willfully ignorant and the miseducated? What’s the difference between someone who is out to demolish our credibility and someone who doesn’t know yet whether they can trust us? What’s the difference between someone who’s setting out to obfuscate and someone who hasn’t been trained to argue through a proposition to find the truth?

There are a few clear answers to that, but none of them are going to be clear to me in the course of an online discussion with someone I haven’t encountered before. They all involve motives and history that I’m not privy to. If I’m playing to an audience, that audience isn’t privy either. None of us can know without better evidence than that, and we should be suspicious if we think we do. We should be all the more suspicious as engaging in the kinds of battles we do as skeptics can and will change us.

I do disagree with Phil, by the way, that we’re not at war. I think we are, in some meaningful ways. However, I don’t think that’s any kind of excuse to mistake civilians for combatants. Or to blithely act the aggressor when we’re not sure. It’s the easy path, but it’s not hard to see why it’s the wrong one.

It’s also good to keep in mind that being constantly under siege, even by choice, can cause its own set of perceptual problems. I’ve written about them humorously, but the issue is real. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in arguing online is that the word “clearly” is a flag for a bunch of bundled assumptions I haven’t bothered to unpack. If I think someone is clearly being dishonest, and I stop with saying that instead of breaking my observations down to specifics, I’m cheating. I’m not doing the work. I am, in fact, being a very bad skeptic. And I see the shorthand of “clearly” used all too often in these sorts of discussions.

When I praised James Randi for being a dick with respect to the people he profiled in Flim Flam, I was praising someone who mixed extensive documentation of harmful behavior with his anger. He did the work. Anger was punctuation, not the message, and there was never any doubt that his anger and dickishness was in response to misbehavior with the potential to do even more harm than it had already done. That was effective.

I’m not Randi. The chances are almost exactly 100% that if you’re reading this, you’re not either. I am considered a pretty good writer, though, and I have a track record of changing minds that I’m pretty proud of, given how difficult that is to do. On top of that, I believe that being a dick can serve a useful purpose. I still don’t do it very often.

Why? It goes back to the idea of civilian casualties. You can’t convert a dead person into an ally. You can’t convert the dead person’s friends or relatives or neighbors or people who read a touching news report of the death. You can’t convert, in any real way, someone who is only agreeing with you in order to keep from being killed themselves. You can’t even convert someone who doesn’t understand what the fighting’s all about.

You can sometimes convert someone who watches you for a while and understands that you reserve your judgment and your anger for the people who will do your potential ally harm–if you can convince them you’re right. That looks strong instead of merely dangerous. People like to have strong allies.

Being a dick can work, but only if it doesn’t hurt us first–and if we can make sure it doesn’t hurt the innocent. Or, to bri
ng it back around and give Phil the last word, “Anger is a very potent weapon, and we need that weapon, but we need to be excruciatingly careful how we use it.”

Comments

  1. says

    Congrats on Phil Plait linking you back. I was hoping that would lead to more of the BAbloggees to discuss the points you've raised, but perhaps that will come in due time.I have endeavoured to not, ever, resort first to dickishness. I reserve that for only the least reasonable and least intellectually honest of my debating opponents, people who are obviously there for that gladiator fight rather than for a genuine discussion. And it takes at least a few prods before I'm roused to the level of anger necessary to punctuate my arguments with that anger.I do hope that if anyone notices that I've been overly dickish, they'd point it out to me in private. Most of the people I interact with online also have a way of messaging me in private (DMs on Twitter, private messages on Facebook, e-mails, Skype, etc.), and I'd like to think I'd take that sort of confrontation well.

  2. says

    I must admit that I struggle sometimes to see if I am, in fact, being a dick. In the real world, I have always tried to live by "perception is reality"; that if someone perceives wrongdoing, you must address the issue as if it were a fact. On the internet I find this harder, I wasted countless hours as a newbie trying to backtrack to suit peoples perception of my criticism.I strongly relate to your paragraph about motives, as they are difficult to glean in internet discussions.

  3. says

    Aw. Thanks, Glendon.Jason, I don't know that you're a dick particularly often. It's not that hard to tell when someone has found a direction that will get you there, though. :)George, I generally deflect those accusations by saying something like, "All right, let's get back to strictly the facts at hand, then." It makes it a bit of a social contract at that point and locks down their behavior as much as mine.

  4. says

    I have to disagree, not on your arguments or Phil's, I agree with what you both say good tactics are.Where I disagree is that its actually some kind of issue. Phil pointed to a strawman, that never happens, and then attached it to the "atheists are mean" meme. Even on Pharyngula the most notably "dickish" blog. Most of the commenters are reasonable and logically state their argument. Sure you can cherry pick out of context posts and say "see hes a jerk" but its certainly not a rampant or growing problem of the skeptical community. I also find it a little cowardly to let your audience decide for themselves who you think the dicks are. If you have a problem with peoples behavior say s., don;t imply it and let others do the name calling for you.Second only to Dr Novella, Phil was hero to me, as much as I have heroes. I was appalled by this speech.

  5. says

    Fine, David, let's start with you and the dickish move of crying, "Oh, the cowardly Phil is ruined to me for making a speech!" Eek. Gasp. Go clutch your pearls. Or fuck yourself. I don't really care which.Phil has done a hell of a lot for organized skepticism. He's done a hell of a lot to promote general skeptical ideas. He's worked his ass off for this. For you. And all you can do is rush to your fainting couch because he suggested everyone, himself included, could be a bit nicer, particularly around n00bs? Don't be such a dick.

  6. says

    Is that an example of being dickish? Strange I find it refreshingly honest. But if my post in an example of being dickish 90% of the skeptic movement needs classes on how to be nice including you.Phil gets a pass because hes done a lot for skepticism? Randi didn't get a pass when he came out against AGW. People ripped into him. All he did was suggest that everyone could be a bit nicer? If that was all he did it wouldn't need a 30 minute speech at TAM8 and 3 posts skirting the issue of what he meant, still hasn't answered. Randi didn't get a pass when he came out against AGW. People ripped into him. By all means rip into me and tell me what a prick I am, but answer my questions.I'm honestly disturbed by this whole thing, I'm not trying to be a pearl clutcher, or anything else, its quite possible I do not understand. I have autism (this is no excuse for bad behavior) I'm just trying to let you know I sometimes miss certain social cues. I tend to focus on details and sometimes miss the bigger picture. Was Phil really just saying "we should all be nicer to each other?" If so why did atleast half the skeptical bloggrs miss that? including Dawkins And Coyne? Explain to me why I'm wrong here, if you feel the need to insult me while doing so feel free, it doesn't bother me.

  7. says

    Wow just read my post and its rambling. I hope you can get the gist of what I mean. Thats why I rarely ever post on the internet and just read.

  8. says

    David, do you really not see any difference between "I disagree with Phil" and "Phil was my hero" (past tense)? Or between "I don't think that's what atheists are doing" and "Phil's making a strawman argument"? There's a big difference between giving someone a pass and ignoring everything else they've done because you don't like one little thing, and there's a big difference between disagreeing with Phil and claiming he's arguing dishonestly because you don't see the same slice of the world he does.One of the things that gets said a lot in this ongoing argument is that people deserve respect but ideas don't. The differences I'm talking about above are the differences between disagreeing with an idea and attacking the person who has it because you disagree. Take the "strawman" notion. Have you read the comments on Phil's posts? Have you counted how many of them engage with the ideas in the speech and how many of them suggest that people don't have to engage with his ideas (which boil down to "let's be strategic") because he hasn't given examples? That's about as straightforward an ad hominem argument as can be made, but it's ridiculously prevalent–among people who claim to be skeptics. There's something wrong with this picture, and it's nothing like the only time I've seen this. That's a large part of what I'm talking about when I endorse (albeit in a mixed fashion) what Phil had to say.As for why people missed it? A couple of reasons, I think (but note, also, that's an argument from popularity). I was sitting in the room during Phil's speech. I saw Jen (Blag Hag) make a crack about the speech and PZ on Twitter and literally hit my head on the table in front of me. I could cheerfully have strangled her at that moment, as much as I admire her otherwise, because I knew what was going to happen. And it did.The idea that Phil was talking about atheists in general and PZ in specific went viral on Twitter. It didn't matter that the people pushing the idea hadn't seen the speech. The idea was wrong, but it was plausible because, hey, who among atheists isn't used to being attacked for it, and who hasn't seen PZ attacked for "tone"?Once that idea was fixed, everybody who hadn't seen the speech first-hand was primed to hear an attack on atheists. And frankly, there are some atheists who are very much a part of the idea/person problem I described above. The failure of skepticism, however, comes in not listening to Phil when he says what prompted the speech, deciding instead that untethered, primed textual interpretation is a better source for figuring out what he meant than he is. That's just plain wrong.Does that help answer your questions?

  9. says

    David, do you really not see any difference between "I disagree with Phil" and "Phil was my hero" (past tense)? Or between "I don't think that's what atheists are doing" and "Phil's making a strawman argument"? There's a big difference between giving someone a pass and ignoring everything else they've done because you don't like one little thing, and there's a big difference between disagreeing with Phil and claiming he's arguing dishonestly because you don't see the same slice of the world he does."I agree here but let me put it in context, I didn't see the speech or even get to the posts on BA till about 2 weeks after the fact. I will admit I read the posts and comments before seeing the speech, and this may have biased my opinion, However I politely asked in at least 20 different posts for some clarification. I was rude and obnoxious on exactly one blog, this one. Strangely enough your the only one who bothered to answer the question I was asking, instead of the one I was not.Perhaps I am wrong and maybe its just a perception thing but going from both the posts and the speech combined it really does look like he is talking only about atheists. Again could be a perception thing because I read the posts first. Let me try to be more concise in what my problems are.I believe Phil was implying a large and growing trend in the skeptic community to be unreasonable "dicks". AndThat this growing trend of people who are "dicks" is a large enough problem that it should be focused on and brought under control. This is the premise i'm starting from if its wrong let me know. My problem with this is complete lack of any evidence or examples. by making these claims without a demonstration of exactly what you mean you basically tar everyone with your assertions. No matter how nicely you you put it, its still wrong. I believe he, as a well known skeptic, should have chosen his words more carefully. Tell me, if say Deepak Chopra had given this speech at TED about skeptics would you have put much weight in it?Hero was a bad word, I will try to explain. I was introduced to skepticism through SGU I work in a lumber mill I listened to 11 hours of books and podcasts a day. I grabbed huge amounts of them, any and all science I could find. When I hit the SGU It was a whole new world to me from there I was introduced to BA. To me SGU and BA were basically the beginning of the skeptic movement. (to me) Not "oh hes my hero, and he crushed my little heart". I never hero worshiped not even as a kid, music, movies, anything I know the work, but I couldn't tell you the names of people in my favorite bands or actors names from my favorite movies.

  10. says

    Oh man sorry about the posting error, I really am new at this it kept saying "URL too long" so I cut part out didn't realize they all went through

  11. says

    David, it's Blogger misbehaving today, not a problem with anything you did. I'll fix it as soon as I can.I've already told you that Phil wasn't specifically addressing atheists, so I'll skip repeating myself and address your other points. Instead, let's look at the converse of what you're saying. Is it reasonable to make the assumption that the overwhelming majority of skeptics are using anger and dickishness strategically? Is it reasonable to say that they never cross lines that would alienate people they want to reach? Is it reasonable to say that they wouldn't benefit from thinking about this a bit more deliberately? Because that's the converse of what Phil is saying when he says we (emphasis on "we") could do better at this. Saying we are human and fallible and that our resources get taxed as we do this is not the same thing as tarring people. Unless you want to demand perfection, in which case you need to be prepared to give as much as you're asking for.

  12. says

    "It stops being a tool when you can't put it down. At that point, it becomes just one more thing keeping your hands busy when you could be doing useful work."A hidden masturbation reference in a post about dicks? I like it!

  13. says

    Ok, he wasn't talking about Atheists I do not know him personally, but that is the impression I and many others got. Again from the post the speech, and the fact that Phil has been known to rip into people who are anti-Vax or moon hoaxers. I don't know him personally, I don;t even know if you do, is it possible you have more insight into what he meant than the rest of us? "Is it reasonable to make the assumption that the overwhelming majority of skeptics are using anger and dickishness strategically? Is it reasonable to say that they never cross lines that would alienate people they want to reach? Is it reasonable to say that they wouldn't benefit from thinking about this a bit more deliberately? Because that's the converse of what Phil is saying when he says we (emphasis on "we") could do better at this. "I get this and I could say I don't disagree with it, I have heard many arguments about the merit of both sides.This is just my opinion but perhaps it might have gone over better if he had given an example even if it was of himself, and said "this is the type of behavior I mean". "I could have done better here, and the person might have listened" You may argue that you understood him perfectly so you don;t see where the problem is. However on his own blog if you read the threads, even the people who totally agree with him have totally different opinions of the behavior he meant. One of the more ludicrous thought "anyone who used the scientific method" was who he was talking about. I realized this is beyond the pale, but this guy was serious. Most took it to be either PZ or Dawkins. A few thought he meant web commenters in general. None of this really matters though because the point is everyone was just guessing. I view the skeptic community through the lens of the web, I lack many social graces and miss most social cues, and yet even I could have predicted that if you present any argument in front of skeptics without providing evidence. There will be an uproar. he could have been arguing that blending kittens in wrong, and he would have been asked for evidence. Even if he presented bad evidence people would have debated it but not made such a fuss about it.

  14. says

    David, Phil did use himself as an example, both in general in saying that he's screwed this up and in specific in talking about what he could easily have done with the young creationist.No, I don't know Phil. What I did do was listen to the speech without any preconceptions about what it was "clearly" about. Thus I heard him talk about everybody being able to do better, and I heard him talk about anger as a useful tool. If you didn't hear all that, you might want to give the speech another listed to find out what you missed.

  15. says

    Are you sure you know what he meant then? Because there are an awful lot of people smarter than I am who just did't get it. There are lots of people who think they know what he was saying, yet they all think different things. If I start to get annoying just lemme know and I wont come back. I have a problem with Perseveration. This topic is just the latest version of it for me. I must have read a thousand comments on the matter just today. it tends to annoy most people eventually.

  16. says

    Jason! You are one of the nicest people I've ever met.But, you claim that you will never ever resort to being a dick. Perfect. A hypothesis. I went to your blog and found out that you are a total dick. Here's the evidence:"Antivax is bullshit" wow …. I'm sure it is, and I'm sure you're right, but calling any movement of people bullshit is dickish. You're a dick, Jason. Let's see… you say"The planet’s 4.54 billion years old (doesn’t look a day over 6000, though!)."What a Dick! You are running rough shod over people's religion. Do you no have a first amendment in Canadia????Let's see, what else …You actually say "…So what do you think? And more importantly, are my tactics in the never-ending astrology thread dickish at all?…"Are you trying to hide something????OK, one more … Oh, here's a goo done:"I haven’t done any atheist posts recently. I’ve been so wrapped up in the astrology nonsense "How do you think this makes those astrology morons feel when you talk like this?You're a total dick, Jason, and I've just proved it! And, if the evidence is not good enough, the stridency of my writing must count for SOMETHING!!!!!11!! (And if you don't buy this, I may have to resort to profanity.)

  17. says

    Well, David, there is the fact that Phil linked to me as agreeing with him. There's also a brief exchange between the two of us in his comments about whether my prior post on the topic was agreement or disagreement. Phil seems to think I understood what he was saying, and his comments about some of the disagreements indicate that he thinks those people missed the point of what he was saying. So, given the primary sources available, I'd say that my interpretation is better supported, yes.Greg, do be careful about being a dick to Jason (i.e., taking his remarks out of context). After all, you of all people know just how much of a dick I can be when provoked. :)

  18. says

    you know, your the first defender of Phil's speech(that i've read) to actually offer any evidence of what he was really saying. Thank you.On some things we are going to have to totally disagree though. When I said give examples I meant examples of dickish behavior, not examples of what nice behavior is. The example Phil gave of dickish behavior, while it may be dickish, it also doesn't really happen, unless you cherry pick comments of the lions den of Pharyngula. I gave this some serious thought last night, trying to put myself in his shoes and think what would make the speech reasonable to give when and where he gave it.The closest thing I could come up with and I got this idea basically from your endless September posting. is that he was trying to address new skeptics who might not know how to effectively communicate.But this does't quite work for many reasons. I don't have time to go into detail right now on why I feel it doesn't work. But I can later.