There were lots of great tidbits of information about how to research and plan skeptical events, get accurate data, separate the woo from the science, etc. There was also a strong emphasis on appearance. No not the clothes we wear, but the way to we present ourselves to those in the community and those outside.
At TAM, Phil Plait, accomplished scientist, author of the Bad Astronomy blog, and several bestselling books like “Death from the Skies”, gave what has come to be a very discussed talk about not being a dick.
Phil Plait at TAM
Now full disclosure, I didn’t see all of Phil’s talk. I was busy doing interviews for Radio Freethinker so I only caught a few moments. I’m hoping to see the filmed version soon. And I should also point out that Phil’s talk has spurred on a lot of water cooler chat. A LOT. With some quick google’ing you can probably find your favourite skeptical blog has already posted their 2 cents worth.
I wanted to talk about this but with a slightly different point of view.
What I perceive here is a demarcation line between skeptics who are (unfairly) characterized as accommodationist and skeptics who are (also unfairly) characterized as confrontational. Phil Plait is someone on the olive branch side and someone like Richard Dawkins or PZ Myers is on the confrontation side.
Where this becomes a problem is that people who identify themselves as skeptics are being driven away by the confrontational proponents. Further, people in the middle, people who don’t really consider themselves skeptics but who might be sympathetic to our cause are put off by confrontational skepticism.
Why are they put off? Being confrontational is considered rude. Phil Plait said don’t be a dick. Keep in mind that he didn’t name anyone. He didn’t say PZ Myers is a dick or that Richard Dawkins is a dick. The point being, calling someone stupid or getting in their face about their beliefs won’t make them any likely to change their minds. Phil at one point polled the audience and asked them how many had changed their mind because someone got in their face about some skeptical topic. (More than a few people put up their hand. Me included.)
The big problem that’s been pointed out by pretty much everyone is that different situations call for different solutions. You really can’t offer an olive branch to Fred Phelps for example, not because he’s so evil you shouldn’t try, but rather, someone like him simply won’t be rational enough to see your point of view. On the flip side, if you have a religious believer come to your skeptic meetings you shouldn’t get in their face calling them an idiot.
Being rude is never a good idea. That’s just a general observation of life. It can be applied to skepticism as much as it can be applied to running a successful frozen yogurt stand.
What can get lost in all that, is that disagreeing with someone is not rude. This next bit is very important, even if someone accuses you of being rude because you disagree with them doesn’t make your disagreement rude.
Being a Dick?
Being a good skeptic sometimes entails challenging people to defend their beliefs. Whatever it is that you’re asking someone to defend, be it religious beliefs, medical claims, ghosts or the supernatural, there’s a good chance you’ll provoke them. That’s because humans don’t always react well when their cherished beliefs are challenged. That’s unfortunate, but it’s not our fault.
Some skeptics are better than others when it comes to provoking people. PZ Myers is unlikely to get invited to a church for a dialog between Christians and Atheists, Paul Offit is unlikely to be invited to speak at a mind body soul expo, but on the other hand, some skeptics will be asked to do these kinds of events. Does that make them better skeptics?
Not really no. Of course that doesn’t make them worse either.
What’s important to remember is that everyone is going to have a different view on what is appropriate for a skeptic to do. Some will say being confrontation is bad. Some will say dialog or debate with non-skeptics is bad because you legitimize them in the process.
Should we police our own to prevent skeptics who we don’t agree with from speaking out? No. Here’s why I utterly reject the idea that some skeptics are poisoning the well. Suppose I refuse to watch the Discovery channel because one of their shows is Ghost Hunters. That’s fine, but I’ll miss some great programming like Mythbusters and Daily Planet. Instead of depriving myself of everything Discovery offers, because I don’t like one aspect of their programming, I should employ my remote control and change channels when Ghost Hunters is on.
Here’s another reason to reject the poisoning of the well, sometimes there are great uses for confrontational skepticism. Recently Kennedy Goodkey gave a talk for CFI Vancouver called “Asshole Skepticism” (we hope to have it on our youtube channel soon) in that talk Kennedy outlined a number of very good reasons to want diversity in the skeptical movement.
And I can’t mention enough that there are some people who no matter how gentle or nice you are, will be offended by your point of view.
For whatever reason, the most radical proponents of anything seem to get the most media attention. So it seems like instead of having reasonable moderate people debate something, you get two extremes shouting at each other. Despite the fact that this model is a complete mockery of what informative media should be, it’s ridiculously common. It doesn’t help when skeptics go on the evening news to talk about climate change and get shouted down by some pundit simply because they’re better at that kind of confrontational info-tainment.
That’s only one example, but skeptics need to broaden our voice. Playing nice with others is really important, but you can’t play nice with a rabid dog. If the notions of free inquiry mean anything to skeptics we need to be free to criticize our peers, but we also need to realize that there is no panacea cure for woo or uncritical thinking. Each individual case will require a unique response. We must also be aware that sometimes the case is not as clear cut as one thinks. A debate for instance, the target there is not to convince the people who walked in already agreeing/disagreeing with you, but rather all the people on the fence, all the people who haven’t made up their minds yet.
Different voices, different situations.