I wasn’t able to attend TAM8, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time at TAM7 and fully intend to attend future Amaz!ng Meetings. With any luck, Beth and I will be at TAM9. Every year, there are a great many people I respect and admire and that, coupled with the opportunity to socialize with other skeptics, makes it an event I’d like to regularly attend. Phil Plait is among those I respect and admire…but that doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on everything.
I’ve been asked what I thought about Phil’s comments. To be clear, I have no reason to think that Phil has any idea who I am and I have no idea who he’s talking about (partially because he’s not very specific about that)…but I suspect that, on more than one occasion, I might qualify as a “dick” by his definition or that of other people. Fortunately, the evidence about the impact of the much reviled “new atheists” isn’t good for the “harming the cause” doom sayers.
But let’s get to the point.
During Phil Plait’s talk at TAM 8, he took an informal poll:
“Let me ask you a question: how many of you here today used to believe in something — used to, past tense — whether it was flying saucers, psychic powers, religion, anything like that? You can raise your hand if you want to. [lots of hands go up] Not everyone is born a skeptic. A lot of you raised your hand. I’d even say most of you, from what I can tell.
Now let me ask you a second question: how many of you no longer believe in those things, and you became a skeptic, because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot, brain-damaged, and a retard? [Very few hands go up]“
First of all, who is Phil talking about? This seems a bit quixotic and exaggerated to me. Where are these people who scream in your face on behalf of skepticism? Where are these people whose primary tactic is to yell at someone and call them a retard? Since Phil didn’t provide any examples to support the claim, we can only guess.
Secondly, this is a prime example of a straw man argument – setting up an issue that is easily toppled instead of the actual issue. Not only has he not provided specific examples, or demonstrated that this is a significant problem, he seems to be engaging in an extremely flawed informal poll (read: emotional appeal) to get his point across. The first question is a fair skeptical inquiry (have you changed your mind about something?). The second question is about as far from it as one can possibly stray.
Of course most people don’t simply abandon their beliefs because someone got in their face and called them names. Better questions would be:
– how many of you changed your position after having your beliefs challenged by someone else?
– how many of you changed your mind after having heated discussions?
– how many of you changed your minds after being offended?
– how many of you were prompted to be more skeptical of your position after seeing other people embarrassed by their attempts to defend a view you accepted?
– how many of you have only changed your mind as the result of people treating your beliefs with kid gloves?
Interestingly, some hands still went up for his ill-formed second question (which sort of refutes his larger point) and I wonder how many more hands would have gone up if we actually addressed the issue fairly instead of poisoning the well.
‘In times of war, we need warriors. But this isn’t a war. You might try to say it is, but it’s not a war. We aren’t trying to kill an enemy. We’re trying to persuade other humans. And at times like that, we don’t need warriors, what we need are diplomats.“
What an odd argument…I almost can’t tell where he’s talking about a metaphorical war and where he’s being literal because he seems to shift between them without missing a beat. Of course we’re trying to persuade other humans, of course we’re not trying to kill an enemy…but if Phil doesn’t think that skeptics are struggling against the enemies of reason in a way that is occasionally a metaphoric war, then I think he’s lost sight of what’s actually going on.
It’s a false dichotomy that one is either a warrior or a diplomat and an unfounded assertion that there’s only room for one or the other in changing people’s minds. When superstitious beliefs are killing people or doing serious harm and some in the anti-science, anti-reason crowd refuse to respond to diplomacy, what do you do? Shrug your shoulders and agree to disagree? Write it off as a difference of opinion? Aren’t we, on occasion, actually going to need to do something…including things that might shock or offend? Isn’t that one of the things that would distinguish a ‘skeptics movement’ from ‘people who are skeptical’?
Find me a skeptic who starts off with insults and name calling and I’ll agree with Phil: those people are dicks who are most probably doing more harm than good. Maybe I’m out of touch, but I haven’t seen much of this. I’m sure they’re out there, but are they really a significant problem?
What I’ve seen are people expressing frustration, on occasion. What I’ve seen are people passionate about the truth. What I’ve seen are people who are unwilling to compromise and unwilling to give certain categories of credulity a “get out of skepticism free” card…
…and I see some skeptics who seem willing to compromise while chastising those who aren’t by telling them they’re hurting the cause.
“What I see [in the skeptical movement] is that hubris is running rampant. And that egos are just out of check, and sometimes logic in those situations falls by the wayside.“
Agreed, but the egos going unchecked might just be the egos of those who think that challenging people’s beliefs should be avoided if there’s a significant risk of offense or hurt feelings – the ego that thinks their way is the only viable path to change (despite evidence to the contrary). The logic falling by the wayside may be demonstrated by dishonest, exaggerated, emotional arguments that misrepresent and oversimplify the situation (as if skeptics are running around shouting at people and calling them names as a primary debate tactic).
And maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t Phil basically calling those who disagree with him, “dicks”? Granted, he’s being very polite about it, but that seems to be what he’s doing.
He took a flawed poll, in order to lend emotional support to his position and the goal seems to be to chastise some unspecified segment of the skeptical community who he thinks are being dicks, because they’ve engaged in name-calling…by calling them “dicks”.
I agree with him on many of the points he made and I’m not faulting him for trying to convey his opinion or convince people to agree with him. What I find most amazing, though, is this…
A former president of the JREF and perennial icon of the skeptic community presented a blatant emotional appeal with quite a few logical fallacies tucked in, to a crowd of skeptics at the premiere skeptic event…and it seems the majority of attendees lapped it up (or that’s the impression I was left with based on reports).
Perhaps it’s because Phil’s a genuinely nice guy. I like him and I don’t take any pleasure in ripping apart his speech. Hell, I have no idea whether he’d consider me a dick or not and it wouldn’t change the fact that I like the guy and we agree on most things.
Perhaps it’s because the underlying message was not only positive, but one that we basically agree with: don’t be a dick. Don’t scream at people and call them names. Attack the issues, not the person. Let’s try to avoid unnecessary and unproductive conflicts.
It would have been very easy to write a speech that conveyed that message in a way that almost everyone would agree with and I suspect that Phil probably thought that’s the speech he wrote…but it’s not the speech that some people heard/read.
In addition to the problems noted above, I think part of the reason is that the atmosphere of the day seemed thickened by what many people perceived to be yet another attempt to erect a skepticism-free barrier around theistic beliefs. It’s a recurring theme and it was reportedly more pronounced this year than last.
An attempt to avoid conflict actually created conflict. Is anyone surprised?
When are we going to actually act like skeptics and address this subject openly?