Who is he talking about?

I guess I’m going to join the ranks of bloggers who are posting their own views on Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” talk from The Amaz!ng Meeting 8 recently, without waiting for Phil’s promise of parts two and three. The feedback on this talk has been very mixed, but the primary feeling I myself got from it is how much people seem unable to evaluate the situations they witness.

It’s actually a fairly long talk, especially since his primary point is right there in the title, but he takes a moment in the related post (well after the talk was given) to clarify some things, such as what “dick” actually means. He’s okay with satire, with being angry, with activism, with not backing down. This was good to know, because the talk dealt with very few specifics, and in the places where such an example would be called for, he begged off on naming any culprits or situations, saying that everyone present likely had their own experiences.

The problem was, and still remains, how “dick” is defined, and what he actually meant by his plea for effective discourse. I have plenty of experiences, running the gamut from honest questions from people who recognized that their information might be flawed, through arrogant proclaimers and outright trolls, to people who I honestly feel were mentally unhinged. And my response to all of them is different. The arrogant and the self-righteous often get a sarcastic or sharp response, and I talked about why in an earlier post. Trolls usually get ignored. Honest, respectful questions, however, get respectful answers, as do the mentally unstable, though in the latter case I often won’t engage since I feel unqualified to handle potentially explosive situations. And for the most part, this is what I see not only from most other bloggers, but from the greatest majority of commenters as well. Actual incivility, which seems to be what Phil was talking about, tends to be pretty rare.

In fact, when I look at much of our culture’s social interaction, I have to say that skeptical/critical thinking forums are among the most mild and benign that I’ve seen, especially when you consider the highly controversial nature of the topics discussed. I’ve watched, more than occasionally, some serious incivility and pejorative comments come up on online comic strip forums, of all places, mostly when some comic can either be construed or even twisted to have a political message. Scientific American routinely gets blasted with creationist screeds, even when the article only vaguely deals with evolution. This says nothing at all about actual political forums, and even the comments on Cracked.com articles.

Listening to Phil, one gets the impression that skeptics have a tendency to be abrasive, certainly more so than the average joe. But I’m fairly active in several forums, and while I’ve even addressed nasty comments myself, I can’t honestly say that it’s rampant, or even mildly prevalent. What really destroyed the advice, however, were the two examples that Phil gave. The first, in opening the talk, was in asking how many skeptical thinkers had been converted by people shouting in their face and calling them names. He actually did get some positive responses from this, but what struck so many people was how badly this argument applies to anyone’s experience. Very, very few people can ever be seen acting this way, so why address the greater skeptical community, if you’ll pardon that phrase (I’ve never considered it a community, simply a standpoint,) with this example? It has been, rightfully, called a straw man, an unrealistic situation created just to be able to knock it back down with easy arguments.

Phil compounded this with the example he closed his talk with, that of being confronted by a nine-year-old Young Earth Creationist. He pointed out how well he did by not calling her names, impressing, well, only those who think that skeptics are unthinking ogres I guess. For those of us who decided to pursue advocacy for critical thinking, the ugliest thing we deal with is typically arrogant ignorance, something that is hardly going to be demonstrated by a nine-year-old girl – anyone with four brains cells to rub together knows she’s simply parroting her parent’s beliefs. Attacking her, even on the basis of her arguments, would be pointless and cruel, and only an idiot would pursue such a strategy. It doesn’t say much for Phil’s trust in his fellow skeptics that he would think we need such admonishment, or that we would be “dicks” in this situation without his help.

For this, however, he’s gotten a lot of support in his comments. Some are, I’m sure, from general sycophants and people who value non-confrontational discourse – any popular blog gets them, even Pharyngula. What strikes me as curious is how many commenters on critical-thinking blogs seem to lose their skeptical abilities when it comes to someone they “side” with. Critical-thinking isn’t really something that should get relaxed, and no one is safe from irrationality. It appears to be a case of something called, “cognitive dissonance,” the trait of (usually) subconsciously avoiding the application of rational criteria evenly throughout one’s thought processes. One of the best examples of this is doctors who smoke.

Now, if you’re unfamiliar with what goes on in active forums for atheists and skeptics, let me give you some perspective. Most of the skeptical participants are quite familiar with a large variety of common fallacies and logical failures, so much so that there’s a list of the most common ones: argument from authority, false dichotomy, slippery slope, ad absurdium, tautology, and so on. Mixed among the skeptical participants will be a certain number of people with bold assertions contrary to the skeptical standpoint: Young Earth Creationists, Alt-Med supporters, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, and suchlike. Their apparent purpose in many cases is to openly denigrate the skeptical standpoint, and this isn’t very often taking place in reasonable discourse, polite terms, or without calling names. Another group you can see quite often are the trolls, who fit into the above group but only participate to post either highly sarcastic or intentionally fabricated comments. A very small number are the crackpots, people who appear to have little grip on reality. And then you have, maybe getting as high as three percent of the participants in any given forum, those who do not hold a skeptical standpoint but will engage in meaningful discourse on a topic without resorting to childish behavior.

Now, to provide a couple of examples. It is still possible to hear, within any discussion dealing with evolution, the triumphant cry of, “If man evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” This was a nonsense argument three days after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, and debunked as a fallacious standpoint then, and every day since, but the ignorance continues because anti-evolutionists still keep repeating it to their flock. On UFO forums, believers will routinely bring up “swamp gas” as if they have heard any skeptic, anywhere, ever mention it, much less provide it as a common explanation (I have never heard this in my life, and I’ve been very active in that field.) UFO enthusiasts, Alt-Med proponents, and anti-vaxxers routinely proclaim government intervention and suppression, despite the fact that it’s both ludicrous and unsupported by evidence. And throughout any such forum, you can hear logical fallacies, of the type I mentioned above, all day long.

Now, there is no such thing as addressing these issues once and for all. They have all been addressed, and thousands more besides, every day for decades. It actually gets very tedious to keep hearing them, and most especially in an arrogant, self-righteous, or smug way, and this is quite common on skeptical forums. Some of the posts I’ve made here are tagged as “Reference” because they’re so common, and I want to find what I typed and link to it, rather than repeating it yet again. But hopefully, I’ve given you the idea that pursuing skeptical and critical-thinking advocacy is fraught with childish repetition and frustrations.

I point all this out to make it clear that I certainly expect people to be human, and everyone to have their own personality. But in the face of such a thankless pursuit, skeptics have actually been behaving in an exemplary manner for the most part, and deserve more respect and recognition from Phil than they have actually received in his talk.

You know, I would love to participate in a forum with a “Don’t be a dick” rule, as long as it applied to everyone, regardless. Funny, I somehow fail to ever see that, and the biggest dicks have never been the skeptics. Phil’s talk smacks a bit too much of the accommodationist standpoint, one that maintains that atheists, skeptics, and critical-thinkers can never be uncivil, regardless of what they face, but this only applies to that side – the various other groups named above are free to engage in whatever behavior they like, and need to be “respected” for this because it’s part of their “beliefs.”

The idea that Phil is playing an accommodationist game isn’t as farfetched as it might sound at first. Phil has openly admitted to being friends with Chris Mooney, the most prominent of those espousing this highly biased approach, and in the comments actually gives support for accommodationism, though he, rather interestingly, defines it differently than any accommodationist I’ve ever seen, Mooney included. There’s another fallacy that’s common, called the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, which requires the guilty party to absolve themselves of the blame or failures associated with their particular standpoint by denying that a “true” holder of this standpoint behaves this way.

It’s very disappointing to be seeing this from someone who is so prominently promoting critical-thinking, and I’d like to believe it’s a fluke, a momentary lapse. So far, however, he has been supporting his stand without responding to its flaws. We’ll see what happens in parts two and three, but I’m viewing this all rather skeptically now. I may be back with some further examinations of this folderol.

[Edit - before I reviewed this lengthy rant to post it, Phil produced Part Two, which did nothing to alleviate any concerns or address any issues I've mentioned here - in fact, his targeting of Matt Dillahunty's take on things at Atheist Experience actually exacerbated the situation. However, there are apparently more commenters seeing the issue with less than agreement now.]

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