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Sep 03 2011

Why is it so hard for Expert Communicators to communicate?

Gee, they just get here, and what do they immediately start writing about? Accommodationism. Both Greta Christina and Stephanie Zvan rip into the subject right out of the starting gate. Greta Christina makes the excellent point that there are shades of grey and that diplomacy is not the same as accommodationism, although the accommodationists would like you to think it is. Meanwhile, Zvan tears into the Tribal Scientist, who has a terrible post accusing all those confrontationalists of making a false dichotomy between two polarized extremes…I just want to tell him to go read Greta and be done with it.

But I have a different issue to bring up. Why are the professional communicators who lecture at us on how to communicate so goddamned bad at communicating? We saw it with Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney, and now here’s the Tribal Scientist amorphously hectoring everyone — I read the whole thing and still don’t have the slightest idea what he wants.

It’s the usual rancid mix: while declaring that there are rational, scientific ways to communicate, all he does is sneer at the New Atheists, calling them unscientific and working through his thesaurus to come up with a nice body of abusive remarks about them. I don’t mind — I’m quite capable of working up a good head of steam myself — but it’s bizarre and hypocritical to see someone berating others for being ranty and insulting while doing his best to be ranty and insulting himself. Obviously this expert on communications finds this a useful approach — either that, or he’s so self-unaware his entire philosophy is suspect.

And then there’s the usual high-horse tactic, where whatever it is he is doing is superior. He acknowledges that many New Atheists argue for a multitude of approaches, he dismisses that, too.

Yet there is an element of intellectual laziness in this view. Of course, no one approach in communication will reach all demographics, or solve all problems. Diverse approaches are indeed necessary. Yet this is not the same as saying all approaches are necessary. Some will conflict. Some will be resource hungry and have no hope of success for one reason or another. Identifying solutions to the problem of how best to communicate science in the face of religion will take more than guessing, hoping and shouting into echo chambers. Like anything in science, it demands research, critical thinking and evaluation. No act of communication should be above criticism or beyond the need for evidence, clarity and precision.

That makes no sense at all.

OK, so there are conflicting approaches. Now what? Does he imagine some utopian state where everyone agrees on everything and there is no dissent anywhere? Are we somehow hampered if we lack uniformity? That isn’t very scientific.

I don’t even know what the basis of his claim that some approaches are “resource hungry” means. For instance, I’m off in my little domain, doing what I do, having a grand time and apparently succeeding in my little niche. How am I a drain on the resources of the atheist movement? What would it even mean to say I have no hope of success, when he doesn’t bother to define success? If I shut up, will that suddenly endow other voices with more resources?

Contrary to the “scientist”, guessing certainly is a good approach — if he’d prefer fancier terms, it’s called making a hypothesis, implementing a test, and assessing the empirical results. Richard Dawkins thought The God Delusion was a good idea, but he couldn’t know for sure until it was published…and then he discovered that it was hugely popular, that it resonated with many minds, and that a strong, vigorous denunciation of religion was actually an extremely effective tool for communication. This is now denounced by the “scientists” who reject the empirical evidence of something in the neighborhood of 10 million copies sold as irrelevant. That’s just “shouting into echo chambers”, apparently.

And if you haven’t noticed, none of the New Atheists have ever argued that their work is above criticism — that’s the tactic of religion, which demands a special privileging of their beliefs.

I’d ask the Tribal Scientist for “evidence, clarity and precision” in support of his views, but if you read his post, or any of his others, you’ll find nothing — I have no clue what his position is, what he’s advocating, or what he’s griping about, other than that he thinks New Atheists are a bunch of big bad meanies. That’s not very compelling.

I also think he’s missed a very important point. Communication is an art. It is not amenable to being condensed to a formula, although it’s fair to say that the outcomes of communication can and should be measured. If one could find a concrete, inarguable result that showed that there was a form of communication that was a hundred times better than what I do, it would make no difference at all to me — I am who I am, I write as I do because I enjoy it, and I cannot artificially wedge myself into another style without destroying what I myself do. It just means that someone else can step up and do their thing and win fame and success and popularity and conquer the world for atheism…and I have no problem with that at all.

I just wish some of these critics had the talent to do it, rather than constantly carping that people like myself shouldn’t be ourselves.

80 comments

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  1. 1
    Glen Davidson

    The trouble is that you have to know something solid and meaningful before you can begin to communicate it effectively.

    The Great Communicators–don’t.

    Glen Davidson

  2. 2
    Ophelia Benson

    I seriously can’t understand his first paragraph at all. The first sentence is so opaque it makes everything that follows equally opaque.

    I won’t belabor the irony of that.

  3. 3
    Ingdigo Jump

    I think accordionists need to apply the outsiders test.

    Can their stance be argued and demonstrated to someone who hasn’t accepted it already? If yes then it’s a valid opinion, if no then they’re not actually trying to have a debate or conversation but are just sneering at people they don’t like.

    Basically I think this is where Plait failed at his DBAD, people asked him to back up with specifics and examples and clarifications and he refused to do so; illustrating that he was either ill-prepared to defend his position or that it was not one of reason but of emotional spite.

  4. 4
    Anri

    Why are the professional communicators who lecture at us on how to communicate so goddamned bad at communicating?

    Even with my limited experience, I have seen this sort of thing the martial arts – someone comes up with some phenomenal system that defeats all opponents and sweeps all opposition before it. Upon rather more freeform testing (that is to say, with people who are not looking up to him as sensei), things go less smoothly. Incoming techniques defeat his defenses, and – had it been an actual fight – the aspiring artist would have been in hot water indeed.

    Instead of acknowledging the weaknesses of the new system, a disturbing number of practitioners object in a way that essentially boils down to “My technique was flawless. You just weren’t attacking me right.”

    Although it’s not a perfect analogy, the same thing is in practice here – it’s not that Nisbet, Mooney, etc. are communicating wrong, we’re just listening wrong. If we simply played by their rules, we’d see just how incredibly brilliant they really are.

  5. 5
    Kevin Anthoney

    If I shut up, will that suddenly endow other voices with more resources?

    Yes, because they’ll have to stop attacking you. Then they’ll have time to deploy this devastatingly effective communications thing they’ve developed.

    Or something.

  6. 6
    Ingdigo Jump

    “My technique was flawless. You just weren’t attacking me right.”

    Which reminds me of what my Sensai said when I took martial arts “No Technique or style is flawless, that’s why you should try to study many so you can apply their strengths”

  7. 7
    Zeno

    In complaining about “resource hungry” atheists, Tribal Scientist is clearly upset that you’re gobbling up bandwidth that he wants for himself. However, until he figures out how to write something interesting, the Internet isn’t going to beat a path to his door — no matter how much bandwidth he gets. (Time to look up “survival of the fittest,” I think.)

  8. 8
    Sam Salerno

    The greatest point to accommodationists ever. Instead of trying to trample under foot your fellow Atheists. Rise above us. Yes we disagree with accommodationism, but were not out there knocking them for it.

  9. 9
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    I’ve always felt the weakness of the accommodaters and tone critics has been that when challenged to provide how they would state our case, they seem to shrivel up and hit writer’s block. Actually, until they are able to lead by example of other than pearl clutching, and show us how to tell folks they are delusional fools in a more polite manner, they are nothing but “critics”. Then show us the politer version gets a better response, in that it gets their attention better than we do. We have no data to that effect.

  10. 10
    Ingdigo Jump

    Yes we disagree with accommodationism, but were not out there knocking them for it.

    Actually yes we are. That was the point. They’re not helping.

  11. 11
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    Then show us the politer version gets a better response, in that it gets their attention better than we do. We have no data to that effect.

    Their niceness is working in mysterious ways. Sort of like God. Equally effective, too.

  12. 12
    feralboy12

    Like anything in science, it demands research, critical thinking and evaluation.

    And focus groups?
    I’m sure the people pushing Old Testament law on us will wait for the results of the market surveys. In the meantime, I’m going to try out this new nasal-fitted fire.

  13. 13
    mikmik

    And yet, if you were to stumble across a community of godless ones, you could be forgiven for naively thinking there were just two distinct species – Accommodationis warminfuzziness, and Newatheist confrontationist. The former are fratricidal backstabbers who are sleeping with the enemy, while the latter are brash bigots who risk making a mess of things by frightening off the customers.

    And also yet, a community of born again christians, a community of AGW denialists, a community of AWG proponents, a community of Democrats, a community of Republicans, a community of Tea Partyers.. oh, wait.., a community of phycisists, a community of squids*, a community of kitty cats, a community of critics, a community of communities….Evolutionists, creationists, lawyers, judges, poets, sculptors, Brittany Spears fans, cooking show hosts, expert comminicatrs, (okay, mikmik, they get the fucking point already), a community of voices in your head, a co……..

    *Athiest squids, for example. You never knw if they’re gonna squirt black ink at you, or lovingly embrace you in their tentacles and give you beak. Lots of them just swim around, though.

  14. 14
    Comrade PhysioProf

    It is pretty fucken hilarious how bad these professional communicators are at communicating. When I was in college, all the dumbest shittes I knew were communication majors.

  15. 15
    Bronze Dog

    Even with my limited experience, I have seen this sort of thing the martial arts – someone comes up with some phenomenal system that defeats all opponents and sweeps all opposition before it. Upon rather more freeform testing (that is to say, with people who are not looking up to him as sensei), things go less smoothly. Incoming techniques defeat his defenses, and – had it been an actual fight – the aspiring artist would have been in hot water indeed.

    Instead of acknowledging the weaknesses of the new system, a disturbing number of practitioners object in a way that essentially boils down to “My technique was flawless. You just weren’t attacking me right.”

    Heh. I’m having a flashback to some videos I watched of an overweight “master” of an allegedly chi-based martial art trying to Hadouken a skeptic. The skeptic just stood there with his arms behind his back. It worked on his students just fine. Why didn’t it work on the skeptic?

    I suppose this fits in with the atheist/skeptic failing to “listen properly” because we’re generally better trained in spotting logical fallacies and propaganda tactics.

  16. 16
    TheBlackCat

    As best as I can tell the argument is is as follows:

    “We don’t have enough evidence to make a decision whether the new atheist approach or accomodationist approach is better. The new atheists are wrong for using their approach withouth good evidence that it works. They should use the accomodationist approach until evidence is found that the new atheist approach works.”

    Note how the accomodationist approach is arbitrarily defined as the default approach to use in the absence of evidence. Absolutely no justification whatsoever is given for that conclusion, it is just assumed. So, assuming my reading is correct, the author is a blatant hypocrite in addition to being a bad communicator.

  17. 17
    Kevin Anthoney

    Heh. I’m having a flashback to some videos I watched of an overweight “master” of an allegedly chi-based martial art trying to Hadouken a skeptic. The skeptic just stood there with his arms behind his back. It worked on his students just fine. Why didn’t it work on the skeptic?

    Then there’s this, found on some old blog or other.

  18. 18
    Robin Marie

    I don’t understand why some people get so deeply upset at the “firebrand” atheists. I understand that you can point to certain consequences of their style — basically that some people become defensive and double-down with their delusions — but most of the critics come out swinging with something more than that; they come out seeming to suggest that there is something *moral* at stake here, and the firebrand atheists are Really Reprehensible People on some level.

    I hate to say it, but my father’s bitching about “sensitive liberals” comes to mind here. Of course, like most of the nonsense my father says, this has a grain of truth in it that makes it difficult for me to just explain to him quickly why it is nonsense. And sometimes I see that in these critics — this strong *aversion* to anything non-diplomatic, non-moderate in tone and approach. Which is often funny because sometimes – often? – the concrete opinions of these people differ little or not at all from those they are attacking; but there is something about the conflict generated by such styles that deeply horrifies them.

    And what is that about?

  19. 19
    uncle frogy

    “”I just wish some of these critics had the talent to do it, rather than constantly carping “”

    OK if I am doing it wrong or not to your liking then knock yourself out and do it yourself. This is the best I can do.
    Like all critics it is much easier to find fault with what someone else has done than do the much more challenging work of doing it themselves.
    They seem to have this idea at the root of their complaint that there is only one way to do things and they know what it is everyone else is wrong.
    I think the term “bossy cow” might apply.

    uncle frogy

  20. 20
    Marcus Ranum

    When Dawkins went platinum with “The God Delusion” he was officially authorized to dismiss all the other communications experts as “jealous nobodies.” It sounds like someone didn’t get that memo.

  21. 21
    Marcus Ranum

    I don’t understand why some people get so deeply upset at the “firebrand” atheists.

    Because they imagine Hitchens and Dawkins’ royalties and keep thinking “Arrrrgh!!!! They’ve got groupies and are partying with Jay-Z and Stephen Hawking and I’m stuck here in blogistan with my masters in communication and my blog only gets hits when PZ Myers makes fun of it! Arrrrgh!!!!”

  22. 22
    Marcus Ranum

    Besides, any communications major ought to be able to out-talk Hitchens, out-charm A.C. Grayling, and out-reason Dawkins.

    Yeah, that does sound like a tall order. Especially the bit about getting a word in edgewise if Hitch is in ‘hog the microphone mode’ – the only person I’ve seen accomplish that feat was Stephen Fry. But joking aside, if you throw in Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Dan Dennett the “strident” atheists are surprisingly nuanced and variously show all the “good” attributes of non-confrontationalism in various forms. Has anyone been complaining that A.C. Grayling is too “in your face” lately? If so, I missed it.

    In short I don’t think the “communicators’” problems are actually with the “strident” atheists at all; they’re really just whingeing about the fact that they don’t get as much attention. But that’s probably because they aren’t as interesting.

  23. 23
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    I’m a Canadian. Being polite, diplomatic, and accommodating is not just a communication method, it’s our national pastime (or so the stereotype goes). But we know there are times when there’s nothing better to get beneficial results than to drop the gloves and get one’s knuckles bloody.

    Why is there this constant call for results? The method of the Militant Gnus™ is getting results. The number of people leaving religion is high and growing. Yes, it’s true, some people get defensive and dig in their heels and stay that way when confronted aggressively, but I’m sure many more re-evaluate their stance (if not at the moment, at least over time), and change their minds. Especially if they place a value on holding the position that aligns with reality.

    Do the accommodationists forget that almost all of our opponents were indoctrinated in childhood? That they sincerely believe what they were taught because they don’t know any better? Confronted with unvarnished ridicule and mockery for those beliefs, step one might be to get defensive, but step two is, for most people I would imagine, to question. Just think of a kid teased for believing in Santa. What does he do? He goes home and asks his parents if what the other kids said is true.

  24. 24
    ariamezzo

    I have an argument that will turn any fundamentalist Christian into a science loving atheist in 30 seconds or less.

    1) Einstein was a scientist and an atheist
    2) Einstein was against Hitler
    3) We beat Hitler
    4) ???
    5) PROFIT

  25. 25
    frankb

    ariamezzo, lol. But no, Hitler tied his hands behind his back, hung himself, shot himself, and took poison. He robbed us of our victory. If he accepted Jesus before dying, then he is laughing at us from heaven.

  26. 26
    anchor

    [Re: "I just wish some of these critics had the talent to do it, rather than constantly carping that people like myself shouldn’t be ourselves."]

    So, this dickhead walks into a bar, sits down and asks the bartender for a tall one.

    The bartender responds, “A tall WHAT?”

    The dick says, “Don’t be a dick. You know what I’m talking about”.

    The bartender asks, “How should I know that?”

    The dick says, “Because you’re supposed to be a bartender. You SHOULD know better. Don’t be a such a DICK.”

    The bartender says, “Oh, I see.”

    So the bartender holds up his middle finger pointing straight up at zenith right before the dick’s face and asks, “This tall enough for you”?

    The dick rolls his eyes extravagantly and says, “See, there you go. I could have PREDICTED it! Don’t you know the RULE that the CUSTOMER is ALWAYS right? You MUST ALWAYS accomodate them! Admit it! You really ARE being a dick, now, aren’t you?”

    The bartender says, “My occupation demands it. This is MY establishment, and I reserve my proprietary right to respond to my customers as I see fit. Would you like to walk out the door or be escorted through the window?”

    And the dick chortles, “See, there you go again. You just won’t listen to polite advice to improve your work ethic. I would NEVER EVER say so, but its quite obvious you are acting just like a dick. I’m just offering friendly advice, and you have to turn it into something BAD.”

    Later, out in the street, as the dick was picking out shards of broken glass from his face, he was heard to mutter, “That’s what happens when people don’t respect each other.”

    Moral of this story: Bartenders never need to serve a dick who imagines he knows better how to tend his own bar.

  27. 27
    Aquaria

    Although it’s not a perfect analogy, the same thing is in practice here – it’s not that Nisbet, Mooney, etc. are communicating wrong, we’re just listening wrong. If we simply played by their rules, we’d see just how incredibly brilliant they really are.

    You know, it’s weird. Every book I’ve read about communication says that effective communication begins with understanding how to communicate with the audience in mind. If you’re being misinterpreted, it’s the communicator’s fault, not the audience’s, always. You could be perfectly right in every respect, but if you’re speaking over your audience’s experiences/knowledge level, then you aren’t communicating properly. Hence why we teach seniors in high school differently than we do kindergartners.

    These turds don’t know their audience. They don’t know what really hits home with them, or punches them in the gut. They think they know, but thinking you know your audience isn’t the same as knowing them.

    Worse, their view of the audience is disgusting in it condescension. They treat the religious like all patronizing prats have to assorted people they pity for being beneath them, as stupid and charmingly child-like, rather than as adults–every snivel out of their snide Kumbaya mouths reveals it of them. Let’s look back at one of the stupider things that Mooney has asserted:

    Dawkins and some other scientists fail to grasp that in Hollywood, the story is paramount—that narrative, drama, and character development will trump mere factual accuracy every time, and by a very long shot.

    And this was my reply at the time:

    Fucking moron. Is he really that stupid? Hollywood is in the fantasy business, not the reality business. Even the rubes know this. People in Hollywood know this. Why doesn’t Mooney?

    Or does he really think that the rubes are so addled in their minds that they have to have their fantasies engaged to learn about reality? Does he think they don’t know when to turn off the make believe and face reality?

    Really?

    Not only a fucking moron, but one who holds the rubes in utter contempt.

    That’s not good communicating. He really is so smugly stupid, he thinks that the religious don’t pick up on what a fucking patronizing prat he is. But they do pick up on it.

    I still say that Mooney and Nisbet are pissed as hell that all their communication savvy doesn’t have them as the gods of science communication. It’s like the Creative Writing majors who can’t understand when some ordinary person gets published and they don’t. How could that be!

    Well, it’s because the ordinary person and the scientists get what you fuckfaces don’t: that audiences don’t care about your theory. They care about what you have to say.

  28. 28
    Therrin

    Then there’s this, found on some old blog or other.

    Obviously the handshake at the beginning was a nefarious method of blocking the master’s primary chi-release point. If only the challenger hadn’t been so courteous!

    But no, Hitler tied his hands behind his back, hung himself, shot himself, and took poison.

    Actually, Hitler was locked in a cupboard, where he starved and had to be replaced by a crime-punishing morphing robot from the future.

    ..

    Original post? I thought this site was just a bunch of long comment threads.

  29. 29
    chigau (違う)

    Therrin #28

    Original post?

    Ohoh.
    Is that anything like Original Sin™?

  30. 30
    'Tis Himself

    Robin Marie #18

    And sometimes I see that in these critics — this strong *aversion* to anything non-diplomatic, non-moderate in tone and approach. Which is often funny because sometimes – often? – the concrete opinions of these people differ little or not at all from those they are attacking; but there is something about the conflict generated by such styles that deeply horrifies them.

    You’re missing what we’re adverse to. We don’t mind people being diplomatically moderate in tone and approach. There’s a highly regarded Pharyngula regular, Sastra, who argues in mild yet concise statements, is always polite and calm, and never raises her voice despite provocation. She is generally considered one of the two or three best debaters on this blog. Her posts are read with awe. And nobody chastises her for her moderation.

    What annoys us are the accommodationists like Mooney, Nisbet and Tribal Scientist whining about us being confrontational. “Oh you mean and nasty people, you’re so mean and nasty. When the goddists hear or read your arguments they’re immediately forced into becoming disciples of Pat Robertson and instantly become Young Earth Creationists. I know this because…well, just because, but I know I’m right. So you people need to SHUT UP! and let nice people like me do all the talking.”

    We don’t tell them to shut up any more than we tell Sastra to shut up. However they spend a great deal of time and effort telling us we should shut up. That’s our problem with the accommodationists. If you want to be accommodating, then accommodate away. Just don’t tell us that we have to be accommodating or else shut up.

  31. 31
    otrame

    If you want to be accommodating, then accommodate away. Just don’t tell us that we have to be accommodating or else shut up.

    QFFT

  32. 32
    Aquaria

    Don’t you know the RULE that the CUSTOMER is ALWAYS right?

    Biggest lie. Ever.

  33. 33
    DLC

    While I prefer civilized discourse, I want to make it clear — I don’t pull back from my position in some vain hope that by being duplicitous I can bring people into understanding of science and rationalism. Further, I don’t back down from calling magical thinking what it is, or from showing my disdain for gods-belief or religiosity. I also don’t expect others to conform to my own preferred methods — if you feel the need to call some religious zealot a fucktard or a fucking fuckity fuck moron, feel free.
    I think there’s plenty of room for everyone to express themselves in whatever manner suits them best.

  34. 34
    Mike McRae

    Counter to PZ’s claim that I’m sort of of expert communicator, I’ve never described myself as anything of the sort. And if I missed the mark with the article with some readers, I’d be the first to reconsider how I could better phrase it.

    In any case, if you want a tl;dr version, I’ll summarise:

    1) While the ongoing debate on tone seems to present only two camps of views, I think this is more of a strawman description than a realistic one. Greta’s article is a good example – while I’m sure they exist, I’ve not come across a significant number of her described accommodationists (at least enough to warrant real concern). Most who’ve been labeled as such seem to subscribe more to being advocates of diplomacy. Likewise, few confrontational New Atheists seem to be non-diplomatic in all cases. There is a rich spectrum of views that the two-camp description fails to describe.

    2) A lot of discussion on the topic of atheist outreach also seems to be more about nodding heads than encouraging a critical discussion. There are contrary examples – ironically, I’ve gotten a lot out of the discussion since I wrote this and Steph’s comments on it all.

    3) Getting communication wrong can mean wasted resources. I’m not talking blogs and bandwidth, but time and money. If anybody knows what the goal of the billboard campaign by American Atheists was and what the used to measure its success, let me know. Otherwise, who can tell whether it was a waste of money or not?

    4) If you claim your approach works, state clearly the goal you were trying to achieve and the way you’ve measured it success. Claiming all approaches to be equivalent is so vague and nonsensical it’s not even wrong. Some work well. Some are inefficient. Some are counter productive.

    Now, for the strawmen (which I know you so love, PZ). I’ve never claimed a particular approach in atheist outreach works best, better, or even well. In fact, I don’t do much at all to promote atheism. I’ve got opinions on it like anybody, but like anything, the strategy depends on the goal.

    It’s strange how the one thing you claim to ‘get’ from my article, PZ, is still wrong. If you didn’t understand any of what I wrote, then fine. I can accept that and will work on finding better ways to express myself.

    But claiming the one thing you get is that all New Atheists are ‘meanies’ is laughable. If anything, it’s that there are some New Atheists who seem more interested in being confrontational than really caring to critically analyze if their approach is doing as they hope, as if punishing religious people with vitriol is more important than finding ways to reduce the impact religion has on other’s freedom or on scientific progress.

    What troubles me is when people claim to be promoting rational or logical thought, or scientific values, and proceed to excuse their own beliefs as exempt or use poor reasoning to justify their actions.

  35. 35
    SocraticGadfly

    Well, I’m sure the new blogging additions, with Greta and Greg Laden’s blog-wife, will do well as expert communicators.

    For Gnu Atheist who “get” neither sarcasm nor how Gnu Atheists can engage in plenty of “motivated reasoning,” to riff on the aforementioned Mooney, my comment was sarcasm.

  36. 36
    David

    @ Mike McRae

    “4) If you claim your approach works, state clearly the goal you were trying to achieve and the way you’ve measured it success. Claiming all approaches to be equivalent is so vague and nonsensical it’s not even wrong. Some work well. Some are inefficient. Some are counter productive.”

    You are making claims right here without any evidence.

  37. 37
    'Tis Himself

    Mike McRae #34

    So you admit you’re not an expert communicator (I got a couple of good hints that was true when I tried to read your initial blog post and your post on this thread).

    There is a rich spectrum of views that the two-camp description fails to describe.

    Thank you for that statement, Captain Obvious. We’d have never guessed that in a million years if you hadn’t pointed it out. :-þ (for the sarcasm impaired)

    A lot of discussion on the topic of atheist outreach also seems to be more about nodding heads than encouraging a critical discussion. There are contrary examples – ironically, I’ve gotten a lot out of the discussion since I wrote this and Steph’s comments on it all.

    In other news, water is still wet and Pat Robertson still is a demagogue using religion to support his extreme right-wing politics.

    Getting communication wrong can mean wasted resources. I’m not talking blogs and bandwidth, but time and money. If anybody knows what the goal of the billboard campaign by American Atheists was and what the used to measure its success, let me know. Otherwise, who can tell whether it was a waste of money or not?

    I’ll tell you want the goal(s) of the billboard campaign was. There are people in the US who firmly believe atheists are immoral, baby-eating hedonists who secretly believe in The Big Guy In The Sky but pretend not to so we can be immoral, baby-eating hedonists. Certain of the billboards said: “You can be good without God.” In other words, we’re NOT immoral, baby-eating hedonists. There are other people (or possibly the same ones, certainly there’s a lot of overlap) who take the very existence of atheists as a personal affront. Atheist billboards may be in your face for those people, but confronting your fears, hatred and prejudices is part of being a mature adult. Don’t you think encouraging maturity is a good goal?

    If you claim your approach works, state clearly the goal you were trying to achieve and the way you’ve measured it success.

    We’re trying to get goddists to (a) consider their delusions and (b) forgo said delusions. We have anecdotal evidence, i.e., statements from people who have commented on Pharyngula and other atheist websites, that our approach has had these effects on some people.

    Claiming all approaches to be equivalent is so vague and nonsensical it’s not even wrong. Some work well. Some are inefficient. Some are counter productive.

    We’re not saying all approaches are equivalent. We’re saying use whatever approach seems appropriate. Sometimes being a spineless accommodationist might work (certainly Chris Mooney thinks it does, he got a Templeton Fellowship out of accommodationism), sometimes being rude, crude and socially unacceptable works, sometimes other approaches work. Or not, as the case may be. Just like your inept whining worked well enough to cause me to try to explain the real world to you.

    I’ve never claimed a particular approach in atheist outreach works best, better, or even well. In fact, I don’t do much at all to promote atheism. I’ve got opinions on it like anybody, but like anything, the strategy depends on the goal.

    So you’re whining just for the sake of whining. Thanks for explaining.

    What troubles me is when people claim to be promoting rational or logical thought, or scientific values, and proceed to excuse their own beliefs as exempt or use poor reasoning to justify their actions.

    What troubles me is that certain people spend a lot of time and effort complaining about other people. Like when certain accommodationists complain about Gnu Atheists or when you complain at length about nothing in particular.

  38. 38
    'Tis Himself

    SocraticGadfly #35

    Well, I’m sure the new blogging additions, with Greta and Greg Laden’s blog-wife, will do well as expert communicators.

    Huh? I say again, huh?

    For Gnu Atheist who “get” neither sarcasm nor how Gnu Atheists can engage in plenty of “motivated reasoning,” to riff on the aforementioned Mooney, my comment was sarcasm.

    Oh, you were being sarcastic.

    Just as a friendly word of advice, don’t try to be sarcastic. You’re not very good at it.

  39. 39
    Mike McRae

    Great, les autres, so we agree on a few things. Let’s get to the only bits of your post that aren’t purely for your own entertainment -

    I’ll tell you want the goal(s) of the billboard campaign was. There are people in the US who firmly believe atheists are immoral, baby-eating hedonists who secretly believe in The Big Guy In The Sky but pretend not to so we can be immoral, baby-eating hedonists. Certain of the billboards said: “You can be good without God.” In other words, we’re NOT immoral, baby-eating hedonists. There are other people (or possibly the same ones, certainly there’s a lot of overlap) who take the very existence of atheists as a personal affront. Atheist billboards may be in your face for those people, but confronting your fears, hatred and prejudices is part of being a mature adult. Don’t you think encouraging maturity is a good goal?

    There were two parts to the question. Yes, I understand there are people who think you’re evil. Yes, I understand their values hold privileged positions in many countries, especially the US. Again, water is wet…meh, your sarcasm’s better than mine.

    So, you believe their goal is to ‘encourage maturity’? Well, that’s another variation on what I’ve heard it was, but whatever. You missed the part where you were meant to demonstrate it worked beyond an assertion that it did because, well, obviously it had to have.

    What evidence is there that it did not merely cause more people to put more effort into promoting religious values, now with evidence that those nasty atheists are putting up nasty billboards?

    My point is not that it did not or could not work – it’s that the people who put so much stock into good evidence and scientific values claim it no longer counts when it comes to something they’re confident is true.

    We’re trying to get goddists to (a) consider their delusions and (b) forgo said delusions.

    ‘We’? And yet above we agreed that there were so many different goals, views and motives. So now you’re speaking for a collective? Fair enough, but excuse me if I just assume it’s your own take on the goal, and that you don’t speak for a group.

    So, you’re out to get people to consider their delusions and give up on them? Great. Given how you’ve responded with such arrogance, sarcasm and mockery to me, what chance do you think I’ll be desperate to reconsider my position as a direct result? And do you think your impact might have been the same with a simple, direct challenge that didn’t attempt to be so sarcastic? (I’ll give you a hint – those who have done the latter have managed to encourage me to consider their evidence in a much more positive light).

    We’re saying use whatever approach seems appropriate.

    Yet if somebody disagrees, one method has to be more appropriate, right? Yet calls for evidence are dismissed as inappropriate, given communication is apparently an art. Hence in the end, two people can claim their approach is best, yet there is no way or even motivation to determine who’s right. That is equivalence in my book.

    What troubles me is that certain people spend a lot of time and effort complaining about other people.

    Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are that PZ decided to waste an entire five minutes writing up a blog post on an article he claims not to have understood, while simultaneously claiming he understood it well enough to know my position perfectly. I mean, I really must be one of the dangerous loose cannons out there; good thing somebody’s wasting time complaining about my complaining.

  40. 40
    ckitching

    What evidence is there that it did not merely cause more people to put more effort into promoting religious values, now with evidence that those nasty atheists are putting up nasty billboards?

    Excuse me? Where’s your evidence that they did? If you want to make this claim, it’s your burden to provide evidence for it, not ours to disprove it. It’s as bad as the reasoning that “Well, you can’t prove God doesn’t exist, so calling yourself an Atheist is wrong!”

    Yet calls for evidence are dismissed as inappropriate, given communication is apparently an art.

    And how would one go about collecting evidence if we were to abandon this method? Feel free to point out how you know that people are being dissuaded by the passionate Gnu Atheists. Or a study or three that points out that people are repelled by it (and not just that they say they are). They ought not to be hard to find — psychology has been studying what is persuasive for a very long time, especially when it comes to politics.

    Here’s one example that appears to favour passionate argument, and this only took me a couple seconds with Google. Of course, I can’t actually read it because it’s behind a paywall.

  41. 41
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    Mike McRae:

    What evidence is there that it did not merely cause more people to put more effort into promoting religious values, now with evidence that those nasty atheists are putting up nasty billboards?

    Let’s do a word-substitution so we can see whether you’re able to understand concepts that are familiar and uncontroversial and that don’t ping your privilege buttons:

    What evidence is there that it did not merely cause more people to put more effort into promoting racist values, now with evidence that those nasty niggers are putting up nasty billboards?

    or:

    What evidence is there that it did not merely cause more people to put more effort into promoting anti-suffrage values, now with evidence that those nasty suffragettes are putting up nasty billboards?

    or:

    What evidence is there that it did not merely cause more people to put more effort into promoting aryan values, now with evidence that those nasty Jews are putting up nasty billboards?

    or:

    What evidence is there that it did not merely cause more people to put more effort into promoting immigrant-free values, now with evidence that those nasty Mexicans are putting up nasty billboards?

    or:

    What evidence is there that it did not merely cause more people to put more effort into promoting homophobic values, now with evidence that those nasty faggots are putting up nasty billboards?

    If it’s not immediately obvious to you, now, that you’ve spent your life in a protected, privileged bubble of comfortable straight white malehood without ever having to consider the things you think you know on any level outside your gut feelings, then I can’t help you.

    Dude, this may come as a shock to you, but we faggots, women, niggers, suffragists and wetbacks didn’t get our basic civil rights by shying away from . . .putting up billboards. Jesus Christ, what’s next – do we have to ask permission at the dinner table to disagree?

    If this is what you find “radical” and counter-productive, you’d better get yourself a lifetime supply of smelling salts stat. You are ridiculous.

  42. 42
    Mike McRae

    Josh…this is precisely what I’m talking about. Lots of passion and hostility, but not much thought.

    Not once have I protested yours or anybody’s right to put up billboards, stand on street corners, write blogs, or sky-write their demands for equality.

    Not once did I say there was no need for privilege to be redressed.

    Not once did I use the word ‘radical’ (in spite of your quotes).

    So, once you’ve finished jousting that windmill, maybe you’d like to address the points being made rather than ones of your own invention. I’d hope that if you’re that angry, you’d actually want to be sure that efforts people put into changing minds and attitudes work, rather than just making you feel heard. I’m not opposing your need to address civil rights – I’m asking how do you know you’re not simply creating the illusion of a difference? You know, going beyond ‘gut feelings’, and all that…

  43. 43
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    Josh…this is precisely what I’m talking about. Lots of passion and hostility, but not much thought.

    Gratuitous insult noted. And fuck you.

    Not once have I protested yours or anybody’s right to put up billboards, stand on street corners, write blogs, or sky-write their demands for equality.

    Moving goalposts. I never claimed you protested anyone’s right to do so. I took issue with your odd supposition (yes, it was clear you thought it was probably true, even though you phrased it in the “just asking questions” format) that something as mild as putting up billboards could spark a backlash. And you know I never claimed that.

    Really, Mike. You wrote that. I took issue with that. Why can’t you honestly address this disagreement?

  44. 44
    Rieux

    Mike:

    Greta’s article is a good example – while I’m sure they exist, I’ve not come across a significant number of her described accommodationists (at least enough to warrant real concern).

    Then you haven’t actually looked. Greta’s descriptions of accommodationism are all utterly obvious references to either overwhelmingly common phenomena in public arguments about religion (e.g., “Refusing to make arguments against religion … because you think it’s inherently disrespectful to criticize people’s religious beliefs, and/or because you think religion is in a special category of ideas that ought not to be criticized”) or very real instances of accommodationism that happened in a very public, consequential, and memorable forum (e.g., “Taking a position as a science advocacy organization that science and religion are entirely compatible, and do not conflict in any way”).

    Most who’ve been labeled as such seem to subscribe more to being advocates of diplomacy.

    Then you’re either (1) ignorant of the accommodationist subjects Greta’s writing about or (2) simply refusing to honestly analyze her article and/or accommodationists’ real-life rhetoric. Accommies’ pretenses to being diplomats are themselves ludicrous; indeed, that’s among the central points in Greta’s article, though it would appear that you missed it—apparently by pretending that the accommies you have in mind are much more innocent than they actually are.

    A lot of discussion on the topic of atheist outreach also seems to be more about nodding heads than encouraging a critical discussion.

    The disingenousness you display is a far cry from “a critical discussion.” Your tired and presumptuous carping about “the unmistakable smell of bigotry” and “intellectual laziness” falls vastly short of anything constructive, especially given your total failure to address your opponents’ perspectives honestly.

    Getting communication wrong can mean wasted resources. I’m not talking blogs and bandwidth, but time and money.

    Seriously? You think gnuish advocacy is a mistake because it wastes “time and money”? What a poor excuse for a reply to PZ—how much gnu advocacy is actually in a zero-sum relationship with other atheist advocacy? If PZ decided to take accommies’ advice and shut up entirely, how would that free up “time and money” for anyone else? As PZ has just explained, he wouldn’t (indeed probably couldn’t) write an accommodationist blog. Same goes for The End of Faith, The God Delusion, god is not Great, ad nauseam—leaving aside for a moment the overwhelming surplus in “time and money” that those works have produced for their authors and supporters, exactly how would not publishing them have meant more resources for anyone else?

    If anybody knows what the goal of the billboard campaign by American Atheists was and what the used to measure its success, let me know.

    Well, first, it’s not so clear that it’s any of your damn business “what the goal of the billboard campaign by American Atheists was.” There seems to be a very real possibility that you are a direct opponent of the things that American Atheists and/or the portion of its membership that designed the campaign in question stand for. If you’re opposed to their goals, why should they care what you think about communication strategy?

    Second, is it that difficult to imagine the kinds of things AA may have had in mind? How about increasing the visibility of atheism? Of forthright, assertive atheism? Of defiance of religious privilege? Of outspoken criticism of religion, either in general or on specific points (e.g., the Christmas story is a myth)? How about increasing their membership?

    Do you really think it’s likely that their billboard campaign failed in any of those respects?

    Otherwise, who can tell whether it was a waste of money or not?

    Why in the world should AA care about your analysis of that question? You are a very long way from demonstrating that your interests and the interests of that organization and its members have much in common.

    If you claim your approach works, state clearly the goal you were trying to achieve and the way you’ve measured it success.

    To you? Why? You have brutally misrepresented gnu atheist advocacy and slimed it with nonsense about “the unmistakable smell of bigotry” and “intellectual laziness.” Your credibility is, to put it mildly, weak.

    Claiming all approaches to be equivalent….

    Who in the hell has claimed that? PZ’s post argues that his approach has led to him “having a grand time and apparently succeeding in my little niche.” He certainly doesn’t assert that any other approach is “equivalent,” whatever that means—though he’s perfectly happy to hypothesize that there could be “a form of communication that was a hundred times better than what I do,” and that that would “mean[ ] that someone else c[ould] step up and do their thing and win fame and success and popularity and conquer the world for atheism.” And he’s fine with that. So where does this “[c]laiming all approaches to be equivalent” nonsense come from?

    I’ve never claimed a particular approach in atheist outreach works best, better, or even well.

    No, but you have said that some give off “the unmistakable smell of bigotry” and/or demonstrate “intellectual laziness.”

    But claiming the one thing you get is that all New Atheists are ‘meanies’ is laughable.

    Well, that happens to be one of the very few things that accommodationists state clearly. The rest involves so much damn hand-waving.

    If anything, it’s that there are some New Atheists who seem more interested in being confrontational than really caring to critically analyze if their approach is doing as they hope….

    Again, given the significant disparities between what gnus and accommies “hope,” you are in no position to lecture gnus about our means or ends. As Greta wrote in a previous article (an open letter to concern-trolling believers), “you’ll have to forgive me if I am less than enthusiastic about taking advice on how to run the atheist movement from the very people our movement is trying to change.”

    …as if punishing religious people with vitriol….

    Ooh! Mark your Religious Privilege Bingo cards, everybody: it’s the old “open criticism of religion is an attack on religious people” lie. Does that make five-in-a-row for anyone?

    A line like that just obliterates any notion that you can make common cause with out-and-proud atheists. If you think we’re open in our (“firebrand”) criticisms of religion in order to “punish[ ] religious people with vitriol”—if you seriously can’t imagine the worthwhile purposes, including internal and community-building ones, of such expression—then we can’t possibly take your critique seriously.

    …is more important than finding ways to reduce the impact religion has on other’s freedom or on scientific progress.

    I haven’t seen you mount any actual analysis of either of those problems. You certainly pay no attention whatsoever to religious privilege, atheist visibility, and atheist community. If you seriously want to argue that the AA billboards or “Pharyngula” do harm to attempts “to reduce the impact religion has on other’s freedom or on scientific progress,” then kindly quit this empty and insufferably meta-level carping and put your damn cards on the table.

    What troubles me is when people claim to be promoting rational or logical thought, or scientific values, and proceed to excuse their own beliefs as exempt or use poor reasoning to justify their actions.

    It ain’t “poor reasoning” when we just have different goals, or an outlook that is less blinkered by obeisance to religious privilege, than you do.

  45. 45
    Mike McRae

    Josh, you wrote, “Dude, this may come as a shock to you, but we faggots, women, niggers, suffragists and wetbacks didn’t get our basic civil rights by shying away from . . .putting up billboards. Jesus Christ, what’s next – do we have to ask permission at the dinner table to disagree?” What’s the point of saying this if it’s not to suggest I’m stating something to the contrary, that I’m suggesting permission is required, or that atheists should shy away from putting up billboards?

    So, no, if that wasn’t your point, I have no idea what your point was, other than to let me know you’re unhappy with something I said.

    You think it’s odd that I’m proposing an action could have negative consequences and no positive ones? Your sentiments on whether it sounds odd, ridiculous, peculiar, uncomfortable or any other gut feeling are irrelevant. The point remains.

    If somebody paid several thousand dollars to simply feel good about seeing an atheist billboard up over a road, I’d have nothing to say. But assuming the goal was (as suggested above) to ‘promote maturity’, what was its degree of success, and how did that compare with any negative consequences? The problem is less that this information isn’t available, but that it hardly seems like much of a concern.

  46. 46
    'Tis Himself

    You missed the part where you were meant to demonstrate it worked beyond an assertion that it did because, well, obviously it had to have.

    Since I have no evidence to support or deny whether the goal is working, I didn’t comment on it. However the advertising industry would claim the atheist billboard campaign had some effect (they would have to or else they’re admitting their jobs are meaningless).

    My point is not that it did not or could not work – it’s that the people who put so much stock into good evidence and scientific values claim it no longer counts when it comes to something they’re confident is true.

    Okay, so you don’t know if the advertising campaign worked or not either. However you’re wasting your time complaining to me about it, I’m not on the American Atheists board of directors.

    ‘We’?

    Me and the mouse in my pocket.

    And yet above we agreed that there were so many different goals, views and motives. So now you’re speaking for a collective? Fair enough, but excuse me if I just assume it’s your own take on the goal, and that you don’t speak for a group.

    When I used “we” I was referring to Gnu Atheists, a group which infests this particular blog. While there are those who might disagree with me, I strongly suspect the majority of Pharyngula Gnu Atheists™ would support the generalities I gave in my post #37.

    So, you’re out to get people to consider their delusions and give up on them? Great. Given how you’ve responded with such arrogance, sarcasm and mockery to me, what chance do you think I’ll be desperate to reconsider my position as a direct result?

    I’ve given you up as a lost cause. As you said, you’re not an expert communicator. You’re unusual in one respect. Your mechanical use of written English is good, you understand grammar and you know how to use a speel chequer. However what you write is only semi-coherent. It’s difficult to understand exactly what you’re trying to say, other than you’re very passionate about whatever it is you’re not quite communicating.

    Mike, I’m either preaching to the choir or explaining my thoughts to lurkers. You have your pick as to which I’m doing. Please note these two choices are not mutually exclusive.

    (I’ll give you a hint – those who have done the latter have managed to encourage me to consider their evidence in a much more positive light).

    That’s nice. There is the minor point that their purposes in commenting on your drivel are not the same as mine, but let’s not worry about trivia such as goals.

    Yet if somebody disagrees, one method has to be more appropriate, right?

    Wrong!

    You apparently paid less attention to what I said rather than how I said it. That’s another reason I’ve given up on you. You’re more concerned with being pompously condescended to than what the pompous condescension was about.

    Let me try it again. There are various methods of persuasion which can be used when arguing anything. Whichever method is most likely to be effective depends entirely on the circumstances. Method A may be successful for person X at time T but will fail with person Y at T and method B may work on Y at T but fail with X at T. However, method A may be successful with Y at time T(1) but fail with X at T(1) because the circumstances are different at T and T(1).

    There are some people, I’ll call them “accommodationists” for short, who feel their personal favorite method of persuasion is always, with all people at all times, successful and all other methods are doomed to fail! We (I just asked the mouse and she agrees) disagree with this concept.

    Furthermore, we get annoyed when the accommodationists insist that not only will their particular method work completely and infallibly, but we should shut up and let them be not only the main spokespersons for atheism but the sole spokespersons. There’s also the point they cling to the superiority of their perceived method with little or no evidence to show their method is more successful than any other.

    Yet calls for evidence are dismissed as inappropriate, given communication is apparently an art.

    As I said before, we have anecdotal evidence to support being rude, crude and lewd in our dealings with goddists. There doesn’t appear to be any peer-reviewed work on how to convert theists to atheists. So we’re not dismissing your calls for evidence as inappropriate, rather we’re admitting we don’t have anything more than anecdote and gut feelings. You want hard evidence? Sorry, no gots.

    Hence in the end, two people can claim their approach is best, yet there is no way or even motivation to determine who’s right. That is equivalence in my book.

    The accommodationists may be completely correct about their method. We’re willing to let the accommodationists do their song and dance without telling them to sit down and shut up. Many if not most of them will not return the compliment. That’s the source of our annoyance. So you’re actually commenting about something other than what we and the accommodationists are debating.

    I really must be one of the dangerous loose cannons out there; good thing somebody’s wasting time complaining about my complaining.

    As I said, I’m not really debating you. I’m using your prattling to explain some points to others. If you learn something from me, that’s just an added bonus.

    Incidentally, I don’t go by “les autres” here. My nom du Pharyngula is ‘Tis Himself (most people refer to me as “‘Tis”). Pour encourager les autres is a quote from Voltaire’s Candide, it means “to encourage the others.”

    In 1756 Admiral John Byng was the British commander at the Battle of Minorca, which was a tactical stalemate and a strategic victory for the French. The British garrison at Port Mahon was forced to surrender to the French, who gained control of the western Mediterranean. Byng was court-martialed for cowardice and “failure to do his utmost against the enemy.” Byng was acquitted of cowardice but found guilty of failure to do his utmost, since he chose not to pursue the superior French fleet, instead protecting his own.

    The court martial had no discretion under the Articles of War and condemned Byng to death. However, its members recommended that the Lords of the Admiralty ask King George II to exercise his royal prerogative of mercy.

    The Prime Minister, William Pitt the Elder, petitioned the king to commute the death sentence. The appeal was refused. Pitt and George were political opponents, since Pitt pressed George to relinquish his hereditary position of Elector of Hanover as being a conflict of interest with the government’s foreign policies.

    Byng was executed by firing squad on the quarterdeck of his ex-flagship. Voltaire, who had been a personal friend of Byng, immortalized the execution in Candide. He has Candide and Dr. Pangloss visiting England and watching an execution on board a ship. Candide asks Pangloss what’s happening and gets the reply: Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres (In this country, it is good to kill, from time to time, an admiral to encourage the others).

  47. 47
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    What’s the point of saying this if it’s not to suggest I’m stating something to the contrary, that I’m suggesting permission is required, or that atheists should shy away from putting up billboards?

    That’s exactly what I’m accusing you of. I’m explicitly accusing you of stating that atheists should have to have (social) permission to put up such billboards, and I’m explicitly accusing you of strongly suggesting atheists should pipe down and shy away from doing so.

    What other conclusion could a reasonable person draw from your writing? You can claim you’re “only asking for evidence,” but it’s clear that you believe the default position is “visible atheist billboards provoke backlash. That is bad. Therefore the burden is on billboard-placers to prove to me, Mike McRae, that their efforts will bear any fruit.”

    I’m not buying your “just asking questions” and “just asking for evidence” stance, Mike. You’re bullshitting. You don’t like explicit atheism, it makes you uncomfortable, and so much so that even mild (but unapologetic) expressions of it provoke you to write long blog posts about whether it’s “helping.”

    You’ve got a problem, but it’s not one people like me care about. Keep whining and wanking. No one who matters gives a shit.

  48. 48
    Rieux

    Apropos of nothing (and certainly not McRae’s suffocating pretense that a billboard campaign or gnu atheist blog is required to empirically justify its existence to him), here’s an overwhelmingly cute story from “Parenting Beyond Belief” author Dale McGowan and his daughter Erin, a seventh-grader (13 years old) at a public school near Atlanta. Some authorial intrusions from Dale omitted for brevity:

    ”Guess what happened today.”

    “I was at the table in the cafeteria with these three other kids, and two of them asked the other girl where she went to church. She said ‘We don’t go to church,’ and their eyes got big, and the one guy leaned forward and said, ‘But you believe in God, right?’”

    “So the girl says, ‘Not really, no.’ And their eyes got all [!!!] and they said, ‘Well what DO you believe in then??’ And she said, ‘I believe in the universe.’ And they said, ‘So you’re like an atheist?’ And she said ‘Yes, I guess I am.’”

    “Then they turned to meee…and they said, ‘What about YOU? What do YOU believe?’” Another pause. “And I said, ‘Well…I’m an atheist too. An atheist and a humanist.’”

    “And I looked at the other girl, and…like this wave of total relief comes over her face.”

    [....]

    [As the Asch experiment showed,] if a group is embarking on a bad course of action, a lone dissenter may turn it around by energizing ambivalent group members to join the dissent instead of following the crowd into error. Just one other person resisting the norm can help others with a minority opinion find their voices.

    Had the other girl not mustered the courage to self-identify first as an atheist, Erin would have been statistically less likely to share her own non-majority view. Once the girl spoke up, Erin’s ability to join the dissent went up about 75 percent. And once Erin shared the same view, the other girl enjoyed a wave of retroactive relief at not being alone.

    The other two kids also won a parting gift. They learned that the assumed default doesn’t always hold, and that the world still spins despite the presence of difference. They’re also likely to be less afraid and less astonished the next time they learn that someone doesn’t believe as they do, which can also translate into greater tolerance of all kinds of difference.

    Uniformity of all kinds is almost always an illusion. And when it falls apart, there’s a whole lot of winning going on.

    Clearly, though, the problem in the anecdote is that Erin McGowan didn’t have Mike McRae sitting one row over to tell her that she was required to prove empirically that nasty anti-religion stuff like “I’m an atheist too. An atheist and a humanist”—with all of its “unmistakable smell of bigotry” and “punishing religious people with vitriol”—was an efficient means to approved ends. And that as a result she should have shut up and brought in some accommodationists to praise the theist kids’ beliefs rather than rudely asserting hers.

    Because really: letting the other atheist girl know that she’s not alone? Standing up for herself? Educating the local members of the privileged and ignorant majority that not everyone agrees with them, or needs to? All those notions are either inconceivable or worthless, as Mike is here to inform us.

  49. 49
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    Also, everything Rieux said (and with his characteristic clarity) cubed.

  50. 50
    Kel

    I like the idea of leading by example, a lot of the communication stuff feels like nothing more than talk – bordering on sophistry. It’s frustrating because there are good points to be made empirically about effective communication strategies, yet critique after critique of “you’re doing it wrong” starts to feel a little hollow.

    There’s so many people trying to climb through the Overton window that they’re getting in each other’s way!

  51. 51
    maureen.brian

    Mike, if you’re still there,

    I used to get paid money for this so maybe I can claim a little expertise.

    1. You can only usefully put so many words on a billboard. Just because you are paying for so many square feet does not mean you have to fill every inch. As a rule of thumb, every extra word you use is an extra chance it will fail.

    2. The short crisp message must work on two levels – it must make some sort of sense to someone whizzing past at 45 mph and it must leave a lingering thought to consider or puzzle over at a more convenient moment, which they won’t do if they’ve already forgotten it.

    3. If you have not puzzled or enticed people into thinking then you have just wasted an awful lot of money.

    It’s the same with the people we call accommodationist – they may feel they are doing a kindness to believers and waverers by spending the first 14 paragraphs stressing how unwilling they are to be challenging and then the last paragraph on what they wanted to say. In truth, everyone, friend and foe alike, either fell asleep or went home at paragraph 7.

    Memorable editorials and opinion pieces don’t work by making you wait until the last sentence for the point, nor do the great political speeches, nor does opinion-related advertising.

    PZ, though – and you can check for yourself on YouTube – can hold an audience for 90 minutes. People likely to be affeared of the odd challenging thought have the sense not to turn up, others come back for more any chance they get. That, my man, is expertise in communication.

  52. 52
    Michel

    Critics of communication methods in new atheism reminds me of movie critics…

  53. 53
    maureen.brian

    For some reason I went back to the source on this – http://tribalscientist.wordpress.com/2011/05/05/the-two-species-problem-of-new-atheism/ – tribalscientist’s original post.

    A sentence leapt out at me – “And no, not all human behaviour is about communication.” – and before I could stop myself I was saying back to the screen, “Yes, but all human behaviour communicates something, at least if there’s any sort of sentient being nearby.”

    So, it is perfectly possible to see yourself as being gentle and reassuring while you come across as mealy-mouthed or confused. It is the message received which is the one that counts.

    I dunno! Perhaps I was spoilt by being brought up on Bertrand Russell. He may have been born in 1872 but he was as Gnu Atheist as anyone alive today, never missing an opportunity to pop up on radio, later television, and the public platform to say things which he knew and the people who gave him the chance to do it knew would be seen as outrageous by a fair number of the listeners.

    I’m going to plant my (Manx) flag and say the onus is on the accommodationists to prove they’re doing something useful because in-you-face-ism is doing fine!

  54. 54
    Species8472

    I’m usually quite diplomatic when debating Christians or pseudoscience, but I don’t consider myself an accommodationist. When they are wrong, and they usually are, I don’t sugarcoat it. Although I’m usually less blunt than Dawkins and PZ and “the gang”. But neither do I—generally—disagree with them, and I certainly do disagree with the “you’re doing it wrong”-crowd who are more focused on “fixing” new atheists than actually arguing their own case against religion and pseudoscience. Counterproductive, and they’re wasting their own time.

  55. 55
    'Tis Himself

    Thank you to Josh, Rieux, Kel and Maureen Brian for expressing better what I was trying to say about Mike McRae’s derision of Gnu Atheists and their horrible habit of putting up billboards. I’d even like to thank Mike for introducing the topic but since I’m a vicious Gnu Atheist I won’t.

  56. 56
    Aquaria

    If somebody paid several thousand dollars to simply feel good about seeing an atheist billboard up over a road, I’d have nothing to say. But assuming the goal was (as suggested above) to ‘promote maturity’

    That isn’t the goal, you lying sack of shit.

    The goal is to bring awareness to the very existence of atheists, that they aren’t evil, and to let them know that a particular group exists for those who think the same way.

    You’re the one making it about something so fucking stupid, liar.

    what was its degree of success

    A billboard has one purpose: To get fucking attention.

    Atheist billboards do that. Obviously. They not only get displayed on the side of the road, but they invariably get additional coverage on TV when they go up, and then again when they’re vandalized!

    That’s called bang for your fucking buck when it comes to advertising. Atheists get TONS OF FREE ADVERTISING BEYOND A MERE BILLBOARD.

    That is a GOOD thing, since you’re too fucking stupid to understand the fucking reality of advertising. There are church groups all over America gnashing their teeth that their billboards don’t get 1/100000000 of the attention that the atheist signs do.

    Do fucking keep up.

    and how did that compare with any negative consequences?

    What negative consequences? Thus far, the only negative consequences have been from deluded shit stain Christards vandalizing the billboards and making THEMSELVES look bad. That’s a win for atheists, dumbfuck.

    The problem is less that this information isn’t available, but that it hardly seems like much of a concern.

    Yeah, we’re going to take your word that there’s some kind of problem with atheist billboard when you’re the one so fucking stupid that you understand absolutely fucking zero about the purpose of billboards, the goals of the groups that put them up, how there have been zero negative consequences of them for atheists–only on shit stain christards, or how we’re getting more bang for our buck than any the christards or the accommodationist slime.

    Are you really that stupid, or do you simply play it online?

  57. 57
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    Aquaria: “The goal is to bring awareness to the very existence of atheists, that they aren’t evil, and to let them know that a particular group exists for those who think the same way.”

    This.

    As long as we are quiet, our friends and families can say they don’t know any atheists. If we do not express our opinions strongly and clearly, they can delude themselves that we aren’t “really atheists”. They can denounce atheists and delude themselves they aren’t hurting “anyone important”. They can project any undesirable charactistic onto the blank slate that represents atheism in their minds and have no countervailing evidence.

    Segregating the minority; Keeping them “in the closet”; these are key to the survival of bigotry.

  58. 58
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    I’m picking up that Mike McRae might think that atheists should be heavily in the closet. Unseen and unheard, and quit bothering the religious folks about their heavy handed treatment of those who don’t believe in their deity. But then, with such opaque writing, who can tell?

  59. 59
    Zytheran

    Reading through the responses on this thread has simply reinforced my impression that fervent atheists are quite similar to fervent theists. It’s the same sort of shitty poor thinking.
    Mike has repeatedly asked for evidence about the effectiveness of the bus campaign as an example of communication, remember evidence? that thing that rationalist people are meant to seek, and people have simply attacked him. And yet no-one has provided any sort of evidence that it has worked. Oh sure, there are lots of stories theists got annoyed, lots of anecdotes that atheists believe it worked however I’m still waiting to see some actual empirical evidence.
    If PZ and his mindless lackies can’t understand what “No act of communication should be above criticism or beyond the need for evidence, clarity and precision.” means then seriously, get out of the science game.
    If PZ performed a biological experiment in a lab but didn’t measure the actual outcome, his scientific critics would be all over him like a rash.
    However it appears that an appeal to faith and anecdotes is good enough when it comes to science communication or promotion of atheism? Claiming results without evidence is just as BS as claiming there is an invisible sky fairy.
    So lets say atheists and skeptics are open to new ideas and avoid dogma, so how does one measure the effectiveness of a communication campaign like that seen on buses? How do you really know if it actually worked? (Even putting aside the concept of what is the campaigns aims and objectives?) And just to avoid confirmation bias, how would you know if it wasn’t working?
    Seriously, because that’s what skeptics are meant to do…

  60. 60
    julian

    @Zytheran

    You didn’t establish any similarities between ‘fervent atheist’ behavior and ‘fervent theist’ behavior. Insulting a group of atheists by saying they’re no different than believers is generally going to be met with hostility when the accusation isn’t back by anything.

    If PZ and his mindless lackies can’t understand what “No act of communication should be above criticism or beyond the need for evidence, clarity and precision.” means then seriously, get out of the science game.

    This would be another accusation you should back up. Everyone present has acknowledged no ‘act of communication’ is beyond criticism. PZ Myers even says ‘none of the New Atheists have ever argued that their work is above criticism.’ No one here wants to be above criticism. But it has to be either constructive or point out real problems. It definitely can’t just be petty sniping.

  61. 61
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    And yet no-one has provided any sort of evidence that it has worked

    Actually we did. The messages got vandalized and even more press. The word got out, atheists exist, live next to you, and aren’t amoral fiends (we leave that to godbots). That was the message. Conversion wasn’t attempted.

    Plus the fact that 2 million more folks a year declare “no religion”. Evidence is there if you are looking for it, not expecting to be hand fed that evidence.

  62. 62
    'Tis Himself

    Zytheran #59

    Mike has repeatedly asked for evidence about the effectiveness of the bus campaign as an example of communication, remember evidence? that thing that rationalist people are meant to seek, and people have simply attacked him. And yet no-one has provided any sort of evidence that it has worked. Oh sure, there are lots of stories theists got annoyed, lots of anecdotes that atheists believe it worked however I’m still waiting to see some actual empirical evidence.

    Nobody but you has mentioned the bus campaign. There’s been discussion of billboards but not of buses. Do try to keep up.

    In respect to billboards, you should read Aquaria’s post #56:

    The goal is to bring awareness to the very existence of atheists, that they aren’t evil, and to let them know that a particular group exists for those who think the same way…

    A billboard has one purpose: To get fucking attention.

    Atheist billboards do that. Obviously. They not only get displayed on the side of the road, but they invariably get additional coverage on TV when they go up, and then again when they’re vandalized!

    That’s called bang for your fucking buck when it comes to advertising. Atheists get TONS OF FREE ADVERTISING BEYOND A MERE BILLBOARD.

    That is a GOOD thing, since you’re too fucking stupid to understand the fucking reality of advertising. There are church groups all over America gnashing their teeth that their billboards don’t get 1/100000000 of the attention that the atheist signs do.

    So the goal of the billboards is given and it appears the goal has not only been met but surpassed.

    So lets say atheists and skeptics are open to new ideas and avoid dogma, so how does one measure the effectiveness of a communication campaign like that seen on buses? How do you really know if it actually worked? (Even putting aside the concept of what is the campaigns aims and objectives?) And just to avoid confirmation bias, how would you know if it wasn’t working?

    You’re complaining that nobody has cited a peer-reviewed paper on the effectiveness of atheist billboards. Have you looked in the back numbers of The Journal of Atheist Roadside Promotions or Atheist Advertising Annals?

    Obviously the billboard campaign isn’t working if you continue to confuse it with the bus advertising campaign. Or is it you’re not paying attention?

    Seriously, because that’s what skeptics are meant to do…

    And whining about Gnu Atheists is what accommodationists are meant to do.

  63. 63
    ckitching

    Zytheran (#59) wrote:

    Reading through the responses on this thread has simply reinforced my impression that fervent atheists are quite similar to fervent theists.

    Obligatory XKCD: Well, the important thing is that you’ve found a way to feel superior to both.

    Mike has repeatedly asked for evidence about the effectiveness of the bus campaign as an example of communication, remember evidence?

    Not quite. Mike declared by fiat that the atheist billboards are harmful as they result in the religious ‘put more effort into promoting religious values’, and said that we had to prove that they are not. Why should we assume that these billboards are harmful rather than neutral? Simply because a number of people expressed anger at their existence? I know there is research on advertising that shows that people who have an emotional response to something are more likely to remember what is being advertised. A few seconds with Google Scholar turns up tons of matches, many heavily cited. Someone else would have to point to individual papers, because all are behind pay-walls.

    Or are you demanding a research article that demonstrates that people can be converted from religious to non-religious through aggressive advertising messages? I’m afraid that’s not an active field of research. If it were, the religious would be screaming bloody murder (and perhaps rightfully so). Although, there is research from various religious studies departments on how to convert people to religion.

  64. 64
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    @Mike McRae (& Zytheran for good measure)

    We have historical evidence that arguing aggressively and passionately works (surely you’re educated enough that you don’t need examples, right?). We have historical and sociological evidence that ridicule and shaming work to modify people’s behaviour. We have psychological evidence that when one person stands up in uncompromising dissent, others feel more comfortable dissenting also, and the stronger, more forceful and more vocal that dissent, the more others will feel they’ll be protected by joining the dissenting group. There is no need for controlled double-blind experiments.

    Given how you’ve responded with such arrogance, sarcasm and mockery to me, what chance do you think I’ll be desperate to reconsider my position as a direct result? And do you think your impact might have been the same with a simple, direct challenge that didn’t attempt to be so sarcastic? (I’ll give you a hint – those who have done the latter have managed to encourage me to consider their evidence in a much more positive light).

    The fact that you pay more mind to your bruised, fragile ego than to ensuring that your position is the correct one is not our problem. You’ve just revealed yourself as someone who has minimal intellectual integrity.

  65. 65
    Matt Penfold

    Reading through the responses on this thread has simply reinforced my impression that fervent atheists are quite similar to fervent theists. It’s the same sort of shitty poor thinking.

    Well taking the rest of what you have said as evidence it is clear that you are well acquainted with shitty thinking, seeing as how you are so good at it.

    You could have said what you did in one paragraph. So why didn’t you ? My answer? You are rude fucker who does care that he offends others with his stupidity.

  66. 66
    maureen.brian

    Thank you, Zytheran, for your extraordinary rudeness. If you talk to people in that way it is no wonder you are reluctant to believe that any human communication can succeed.

    As we seem, in more than one sense, to have got onto buses do have a look at the Guardian’s round-up of the success of the UK Atheist Bus Campaign – raised far more than expected, extended to other places and other formats, backed by the ASA, backed by some religious organisations and mimicked by others, loads of media coverage, etc. Looks like success to me.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jan/06/atheist-bus-campaign-nationwide

    And when you come back do tell us who – God, perhaps? – put you in charge of the communication strategy and advertising budget of every humanist / atheist / pro-science organisation on the planet. Then we’ll be able to treat you with the deference you so clearly feel you dererve.

    PS: You do realise, don’t you, that we are talking about the sort of advertising whose benefits don’t show up in the next quarterly figures but over a period of years?

  67. 67
    PZ Myers

    I’ve been trying to decipher McCrae’s purpose and argument, and despite his several attempts here, he has failed to communicate. The central point seems to be this one:

    What troubles me is when people claim to be promoting rational or logical thought, or scientific values, and proceed to excuse their own beliefs as exempt or use poor reasoning to justify their actions.

    I think what it is is that he wants to be able to say, “I AM MORE SCIENTIFICAL THAN YOU” — that’s the whole thrust of his tirades, seeking self-vindication by declaring that he’s the bestest, all those New Atheists suck. His strategy seems to consist entirely of pointing at every action atheists have taken and demanding that we cite a raft of psychology papers to show that it meets his narrow criteria for scientific justification.
    Most of the people I’ve known to be accused of scientism are innocent. I think McCrae might be one of the few people who actually deserves the label.

  68. 68
    sundiver

    I don’t understand all the pearl-clutching and hand-wringing about these rude, strident and shrill ( musn’t forget shrill ) atheists. Face it, we’re here, we aint going away and we’re gonna make goddamn sure people know it. If some don’t like the way PZ, Richard et al are going about it, don’t snivel about how fucked up they are, get out and do something! I don’t particularly care to be told I’m doing something wrong by someone who isn’t doing jack-shit to help. If Tribal Scientist has something to say religitards that’s so much more effective, let’s see what he’s got. If he has such a superior method, fucking show it, flapping his lips about how good he is aint nothing but chest-thumping.

  69. 69
    PZ Myers

    The problem is deeper than Zytheran comprehends.

    If PZ performed a biological experiment in a lab but didn’t measure the actual outcome, his scientific critics would be all over him like a rash.

    If I proposed an experiment without prior justification and a summary of expected outcomes, I wouldn’t get the money to do it.
    In the case of the billboards, they weren’t just funded as a lark. People went before committees at these organizations and argued that they would get attention, they would be newsworthy, they would prompt public discussion, they would draw attention to the organizations behind them. Those were the expected and predicted outcomes. No one predicted a ‘conversion rate’ from Christianity to atheism, no one made claims of discrete psychological effects in the minds of viewers, so complaining that those results are not available is irrelevant.
    The actual, measured result was the publicity given to those billboards. They exploded from Ariane Sherine’s initial efforts in the UK with bus signs to big campaigns by the Coalition of Reason and American Atheists and just about every local skeptic and atheist group in the country precisely because they had the desired dramatic effect.
    I don’t know why people like McCrae and Zytheran can’t get this. When I first heard about the sign campaigns, I thought they were silly and futile and were going to sink without a trace. I was won over by the empirical evidence that they had a strong public impact at low cost. CoR and AA also clearly saw their effectiveness.
    What Zytheran and McCrae are doing is actually unscientific — they are demanding that the results of the experiment be retrofitted to outcomes that were not part of the original hypothesis.

  70. 70
    Rey Fox

    Reading through the responses on this thread has simply reinforced my impression that fervent atheists are quite similar to fervent theists.

    When people say that, what they mean usually boils down to: Both groups think that they are right and are not afraid to say so. Needless to say, I am unimpressed by the equivalence.

  71. 71
    SocraticGadfly

    Nice to see that conversation has continued with Gnus continuing to “pull a Mooney” on motivated reasoning.

    Not that it’s surprising. When Gnus continue the claims that Stalin wasn’t an atheist just because he went to a seminary in his teens, or Penn claims that atheists are as much as 20 percent of the population, well, critical reasoning has long previous flown the Gnu coop.

    http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2011/08/gnu-athests-are-also-guilty-of.html

    But, ultimately, for PZ, it’s about cadre-building, right? Don’t forget that, since he specifically said so a while back.

  72. 72
    'Tis Himself

    Needless to say, I am unimpressed by the equivalence.

    Now what kind of attitude is that? Mikey McRae and Zysomething-or-other will be dismayed at your cavalier dismissal of the obvious. If you had the goal of converting fundamentalist goddists to something else, model railroad enthusiasts or catch and release whalers for example, your lackadaisical approach is doomed to failure. :-þ

  73. 73
    'Tis Himself

    SocraticHorsefly,

    I’m glad to see you’ve forgone sarcasm and replaced it with plain and simple whining.

  74. 74
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    @gadfly

    When Gnus continue the claims that Stalin wasn’t an atheist just because he went to a seminary in his teens,

    Citation needed. Please provide examples of, say, 3 at least somewhat prominent Gnus* who have made this claim.

    No one atheist gives a shit if Stalin was an atheist. It neither justifies his actions, nor taints atheism. Just like the fact that he was a man or wore a moustache.

    or Penn claims that atheists are as much as 20 percent of the population

    That’s not an unreasonable speculation (the “as much as” is a clue that this isn’t technically a claim, btw). There are many people who don’t self-identify as atheists but who actually don’t believe in a personal god or gods. Just as there are many, many people who call themselves Christians who don’t actually believe in the doctrines laid out in the Nicene Creed.


    *Your use of this spelling is laughable. It shows that you’re really quite clueless.

  75. 75
    PZ Myers

    I’ve noticed that SocraticGadfly doesn’t really contribute to the discussion here — he flies in, poops out some snide remark (often false, as in his claim that somehow atheists are denying that Stalin was an atheist), and leaves a link to his blog.

    Is there some reason I shouldn’t regard him as nothing but a spammer?

  76. 76
    PZ Myers

    Oh, easy way to test: I just put his url in the blacklist. He can comment, but he’s going to have to say something other than trying to drum up traffic for his petty blog.

    I suspect he’ll disappear completely now.

  77. 77
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Is there some reason I shouldn’t regard him as nothing but a spammer?

    Lets see. Fails to advance the thread. Prominently displays his blog. Has a bad attitude. Almost a bingo.

  78. 78
    Sili

    Why is it so hard for Expert Communicators to communicate?

    I could tell you, but you have to buy my book.

  79. 79
    Zytheran

    So all I ask for is evidence after pointing out the similarities in behaviour and I get a whole pile of …. no evidence. Oh ‘we got publicity’ is as good as it gets.
    I get straw man argument’s I’m after a research paper or something, not that I said that.
    Even PZ himself said this
    “What Zytheran and McCrae are doing is actually unscientific — they are demanding that the results of the experiment be retrofitted to outcomes that were not part of the original hypothesis.”

    Sorry, McCrae didn’t and I didn’t say that so stop making up crap. And that goes for the rest of you straw man merchants who played the same card.

    What I asked for was evidence, that was all. PZ, You know as well as I do when you run an experiment you state how you measure your results before you run the experiment.
    So what were the outcomes, in a way that can be quantified, from before the campaigns were run? Did anyone write it down?

    Was there any sort of goal apart from hand waving and “we got lot’s of attention” ?
    Was the measurement, say , number of major newspaper headlines used as a metric and a rough target set?
    Was there any sort of independent measurement of how many or what percentage of people saw the campaign or just saw the reporting of it?
    Any post campaign work on what people actually thought, rather than just guessing based on media reports? This bit is really important, so lets assume lots of people saw your campaign, did it actually change their views or opinions?

    Do you lot really think that’s how advertisers would run their business, throwing money at good ideas but then not measuring to see if it was effective? Please note that advertisers do not need research in journals to tell them how well their campaigns work, which I’ll repeat again, isn’t what I asked for and isn’t what’s needed here.

    And I’ll note that not one of you answered my questions at the end of my post about how to measure the effectiveness of the campaign.
    Not one person.

    That’s the sad and pathetic bit, they were all reasonable requests with open questions for someone to explain how to measure these sorts of campaigns and all I got was flame and attacks.

  80. 80
    julian

    Do you lot really think that’s how advertisers would run their business, throwing money at good ideas but then not measuring to see if it was effective?

    You realize, I hope, that these are billboards and bus ads and not the marketing campaign of a major business.

    That’s the sad and pathetic bit, they were all reasonable requests with open questions for someone to explain how to measure these sorts of campaigns and all I got was flame and attacks.

    Don’t flatter yourself.

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