Don't Be a Dick, Phil Plait

The title of this post is supposed to get attention. I do this regularly. It creates hits. Try it sometime. But I also want to make this point. There appears to be a storm of controversy by skeptics weighing in on one side or the other about Phil Plait's talk, "Don't Be a Dick," at TAM 8 posted below. I only know that there is controversy. I have not read what people have said. I don't need to. Watch his 30 minute talk below. Then read what I have to say about it afterward.

Basically Phil argues that, (1) "vitriol and venom are on the rise" among skeptics against believers, and that, (2) such an attitude and the rhetoric that goes with it will not help believers change their minds.

Let's talk about the problem as he sees it (1). The problem as he sees it is supposed to be persuasive enough that he's justified in addressing it. As such it depends on whether his diagnosis is correct. To show this Phil needs evidence that it is a problem needing to be addressed. Yet all he offers is anecdotal evidence for it, that is, that which he has personally experienced. But that anecdotal evidence depends on what circles he runs in. What circles does he run in? I don't know. I confess I have not heard of him before (sorry, my fault not his, but then I don't know most things that are important). I presume the people in his circles know he's talking about them.

In the process Phil offended many people he was not talking to because they will falsely conclude he was talking about them, when he was not. For example, I've used the word "brainwashed" before, so was he talking about me? If I thought that he was singling me out I could get a bit defensive and even upset with him. "How dare he single me out like that" I could fume. But I very much doubt he's talking about me or even knows I exist, because if so, he could have used me as a good example of what he wants others to do. ;-)

Perhaps Phil was employing the strategy that "if the shoe fits the guilty should wear it." But such a strategy expects something that cannot be expected from emotional human beings. People almost always take things personally. Skeptics do not have a corner on rationality. I've said this umpteen numbers of times despite the fact that I wish it were not so.

Phil probably also offended the people who run in his circles if they are not persuaded by his case, and I don't see why they should as it's stated in the video.

That's why talks of this nature are not really smart to give if the goal is to make friends and influence people. Unless the speaker has the courage to name names, or unless he has more than mere anecdotal evidence that there is a problem needing addressed, he will always offend more people than he intends on addressing. In other words, "Don't be a Dick" Phil.

[Although, in one sense Phil was smart to give a talk like this if we remember that "even bad press is good press." After all, now I know who Phil Plait is and he's somewhat famous! So think on that you publicity seekers who use attention getting blog post titles. *ahem*]

Let's say Phil decided to convey this same message without coming across as a dick. How could he have done this? Easily. Simply don't point any accusatory fingers at a nebulous crowd. Instead, tell the audience about the mind of believers and how we should deal with them if we wish to change their minds with argumentation. Give examples of how best to approach believers. He did not need to accuse anyone of anything.

Now let's talk about (2) where Plait claims vitriolic rhetoric will not change the mind of a believer. Did you notice that some people raised their hands when Phil asked how many became skeptics because they were called an idiot? Phil seemed to ignore them for the most part. But does Phil know such rhetoric will not change the mind of a believer? Who knows what will change their minds? Richard Carrier previously wrote something about the use of ridicule that disagrees with Plait's call to uniformly cease using it:
By and large the minds of the ridiculous can't be changed. It's their flock we're talking to. But even the ridiculous change under ridicule some respond by getting more ridiculous (and those are the ones who could never be swayed even by the politest methods), but others accumulate shame until they see the error of their ways (I've met many ex-evangelicals who have told me exactly that). Thus, ridicule converts the convertible and marginalizes the untouchable. There is no more effective strategy in a culture war.
Ridicule in a social grouping does have it's effect because we are social human beings. There are some beliefs we can never argue people out of because they were never argued into them in the first place. Religion is one of them. So ridicule and social approbation do have their effects. It does indeed have a great impact on someone if all they ever hear is that a particular belief is stupid. Take a Flat Earther, for instance. Constantly have many different people tell him he's an idiot and this will cause him to doubt, even if we offer him no argument to the contrary. That's who we are as humans. We want to conform to the norm.

Now in his defense Plait may not be against all use of ridicule, but that's surely the impression I got from watching him talk.

The fact is that Plait falsely assumes something about the very skeptics he's talking to. He assumes the goal of everything we write and say is to reach out to the believer, even when we're speaking to other skeptics. Listen, the way I write and talk to believers is different than the way I write and talk to skeptics. When talking to skeptics it's okay to have a good laugh at the idiocy of some believers, okay? Sorry if believers just happen to be listening in, but I can't help it if they can read what I write or attend meetings where I'm speaking. Surely Plait has backed off that assumption by now, which, if he has done so takes the thunder out of his talk. We do not always write or talk to convince the believer. Sometimes we get so frustrated we have no other release but to vent. Sometimes we're talking to other skeptics in front of believers.

So where does that leave us? Where is Phil Plait correct in his "Don't be a Dick" talk? He's right on, dead on, spot on, about one thing that can best be phrased this way:
If skeptics want to argue believers out of their religion then when addressing believers skeptics need to treat believers and their beliefs with a good measure of respect and dignity.
This should be non-controversial I would think, once we grant the distinctions. If however, you don't think a particular believer can be argued out of his or her religion (and I've known plenty of believers like this), or, if you need to vent (which I've also done when totally frustrated), or if you are speaking to other skeptics in front of believers in order to encourage these skeptics, then what Plait argued for simply does not apply.

Please drop a few pennies in my jar on your way out. ;-)