Be a smart dick

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Is PZ Myers over the top? Is Phil Plait too nice? Is Chris Mooney right about framing? If I meet a Creationist, should I throw a fossil over his head?

A while back, I did a radio show with a skeptic who happened to be a musician. One of the main topics was whether or not being mean to people who did not agree with you was OK. I was on the side that it was often OK, certainly not the only way to do it, but that the entire conversation about being mean vs. nice had become too uni-dimensional and counter productive, that there were times and places for being stern and firm, and times and places to complement the opposition, and times and places to just smile politely while you are reloading. The musician was of the opinion that it was almost always necessary to be civil and polite. At the end of the interview, we had the pleasure of listening to his rap song about skepticism, in which he said (rapped) numerous things that any non-skeptic would take, I’m quite sure, as nasty insults. His song was harsh. He was being a total dick about it. Made me laugh.

Obviously, he did not think he was being a dick, and he thought no one else should be a dick, but when it came down to articulating his strongly held positions (I shall avoid the use of the word “belief” here), in an artistic medium in which he excelled (the song was quite good) the truth just kind of got in the way and the contrast between a rational view and a wooish view became too strong to gloss.

I want to say immediately that I am not suggesting that when push comes to shove there will always be a harshness to the atheistic, skeptical, or scientific argument. That is not true. The musician of whom I speak, Omar Mouallem (here is his site, could have made a song that would not have made a non skeptic feel badly, and also would have probably carried a message that would have been missed on many, but that would have eventually snuck up on a non-suspecting few and nudged their thinking a little. (And, his song could have been a lot more harsh than it was.) My point is not that being a dick is inevitable. It is not, and it is good that there are those who are good at not being a dick when speaking, writing, or singing about the particular area of rational thinking that is dear to them.

But true civility in real culture wars is rare, most people claiming it to be necessary or even true are deluded about their specific claims, and it is probably not helpful or necessary in many cases. Moreover, it seems to me that many times individuals who are calling for others to be nicer while they themselves are being strong-worded are speaking across issues. Chris Mooney is not particularly lovey-dovey with anthropocentric global warming denialists. But he often criticizes, for instance, PZ Myers for being similarly harsh on various spokespeople for religion. I think that my skeptical colleague Omar may have been doing something similar: He was quite annoyed about non-rational thinking (and justifiably so) but didn’t like how people in other areas of critique (atheism, or whatever) were making their case.

Being a dick vs. not is not a matter of effectiveness of one’s approach. It is, rather, a matter of effective expenditure of one’s resources. Getting in the face of people you fundamentally disagree with may or may not change their minds. It is easy to argue that it is unlikely to work. It seems like it should not work. It seems as though screaming at someone will make them stop listening right away. But it is equally easy to argue that being nice to them will also not work. If you’re really nice, they may not even hear you. Studies done in relation to the whole idea of “framing science*” or other similar (political) issues show that when you are making arguments counter to the social or political beliefs of specific individuals, you can get them to hate you … and reject your ideas … less severely and less immediately if you ‘frame’ the argument appropriately, which includes (but is not limited to) being reasonably civil about it. The same studies, however, seem to also show that the effect wears off in a short to medium amount of time. The question remains, then, was being nice worth it? On the other hand, the question of being mean has the same problem. Is the energy spent being harsh well spent?

The answer to both questions probably matters at the more strategic level than the level at which one is simply trying to convince another person to change their strongly held beliefs and adopt your strongly held beliefs instead. Being somewhat flamboyant in one’s attacks on irrationality can get you somewhere, and by extension, it can help your argument. George Carlin, Lewis Black and PZ Myers* represent a constellation of personalities that are consistent in tone, in your face, often dickish, and widely disseminated. A mealy mouthed George Carlin, a non-profane and in-your-face Lewis Black or a wishy-washy PZ Myers would be … well, not mentioned here because we would have a hard time thinking of who they were. Message managed.

And, there is this: A strong and loud voice that is heard over the others partly because others quieten down to catch the next outrage may or may not convince those who are already non-convinceable, but it does rally others of like mind and strengthen the cause itself, even as the more gentile decry that the cause is being ruined.

On the other hand, one could argue that the “don’t be a dick” camp has a lot of effect as well. Phil Plait, MrDon’t Be A Dick himself, is widely paid-attention-to. We can only assume that his message is getting through to somebody, and he is more than capable of rallying the troops. As long as he is not actually being a dick about it, he is demonstrating the effectiveness of the civil message.

On the third hand, if I may be allowed such an anatomical excursion, I had always thought of Richard Dawkins* as being a very civil person, civil even when he is making a strong argument in disagreement with some other person or some point of view. Yet, I’m told again and again that he is not civil at all, that he is a total ass, that he is an aggressive meaney. Do these people not hear this nice British accent and understand these well sculpted Public School sentences????? Do they not know what civil means????? Jeeesh.

In the end, here is how it is: Being a dick is not as bad as some have claimed it to be, and has benefits. Not that I would know, because I’m always nice. Not being a dick has fewer benefits than claimed. The assertion that meanness turns off those that already hate you but that being nice to them somehow “gets through” is often asserted, rarely tested, and as far as I can see, is woo. On the other hand, civility has its benefits, as does stridency. Yet, it is more important to realize the strategic load that these approaches have, and to plan accordingly. Above all, let us avoid letting the philosophy of which we speak become yet another New Age belief (most of the assertions made in most of the writing and speaking on this are unsupported by any evidence proffered), or yet another distraction from our ultimate, variously shared objectives.

For the dickishly oriented, I’ll leave you with a few guidelines that come to mind. I hope you’ll add more in the comments.

Don’t be only a dick. If you are going to be a dick, try not to be only a dick. If you show up unannounced and lean into your opposition in the nastiest way possible at the outset and do nothing else ever, you will probably not get as far as you were hoping. Chances are your message will be missed. Most likely you will in fact get written off too soon. Think of the race car analogy. The idea at Indy is to go around the oval track 500 times without crashing and faster than the other racers. But, you don’t show up at the track going 200 miles per hours. Rather, all the cars start off slow, go around the track a few times behind a pace car, and when none of the cars blows up (because they are such high strung machines) and everything seems fine, the pace car pulls aside and they start to race. Imagine a car pulling out of the pack and passing the pace car. That driver would be doing a very good job at being a dick. And would be expelled from the race immediately.

Don’t be a stupid dick. If you are going to be a dick about a specific issue, don’t do it by saying stupid, incorrect things. In a recent discussion about the utility of drinking cranberry juice to ward off urinary tract infections (see this), the first item to come up on a search of skeptical web sites was a nasty comment (on some blog somewhere) strongly dismissing the claim and stating unequivocally that “double blind studies have shown that cranberry juice has no effect whatsoever” or words to that effect. The commenter was anonymous (which is factually relevant here), dickish, and incorrect. There are other things the commenter could have said that would have let him or her still be a dick, which was probably the point, but that would be less embarrassingly wrong.

Don’t claim you are not a dick when you are, unless, like me, you are trying to be funny. Or, more specifically, don’t be throwing rocks if you live in a glass house, and chances are, you live in a glass house. There is a certain amount of cathartic truth to the PZ Myers approach. We really are in opposition. This really is a war, just like Chris Mooney, ironically says it is. If you find yourself claiming that someone else is being too harsh, do a quick check: Are they acting in a specific sub area of discourse different from the one you practice in? Are you a ghost-buster-buster and they an atheist? Are you a public health supporter and they more of a “Myth Buster” kind of person? Maybe, (cough cough)in some cases, the harshness you perceive is harsher because it is directed, a little, or more than a little, at you.

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54 thoughts on “Be a smart dick

  1. Of course, Phil Plait doesn’t have to be a dick to be noticed: he has the whole monumentally dickish universe of rogue asteroids, supernovas and giant sun flares to do it for him πŸ˜‰

  2. It is all strategic, and that fact would be ignored at our peril. I do think this discussion has pitted a PZ vrs. Plait approach against one another, and I’m not sure that this was Phil Plait’s meaning in his address, but the point does remain valid that thoughtless dickishness or appeasement are not productive and potentially counter productive.

  3. Oh, but it is a dichotomy, and an easy question to answer, if one was to have a position on the issue .Mine is that Phil Plait, Rebecca and the other folks from the JRF have all apparently gotten the same briefing, are all stating the same message(Don’t be a Dick), and are all vehemently knocking down a strawman that doesn’t actually exist.There, that wasn’t so hard, was it ? What’s your position Ange ?

  4. Rorschach, my position is that no one need bother with you, because you are of the class of dicks that asserts that anyone disagreeing with you is dishonest. Go fuck your strawman (i.e., yourself).

  5. Must there always be such an obvious correlation between being a dick and believing in conspiracies? What are you going to do when a real conspiracy comes along?

  6. There is obviously room for improvement. PZ is strident but he is not a dick. Half the regular readers on his site are total dicks because they think the see PZ doing this and go along. PZ could do a better job reining them in. And Phil is a dick when he needs to be. I like that you pointed out the irony that is Chris Mooney.

  7. The Indy 500 is 500 miles long. The track at Indy is 2.5 miles long. Uh… you do the math. By this post I am of therefore a dick.

  8. Here is one way to reach out: New Scientist, 12 August 2010 by Jeff Hecht: “Dinosaur man: playing creationists at their own game”
    Quote: Γ’??It’s important to demonstrate evolution in a way that cannot be countered by creation science. One way of doing this is to use creation science itself to demonstrate evolutionary principles.”

  9. The problem with that, Birger, is that creation science is designed to counter evolution, so they have a head start, rhetorically.

  10. The farther apart the elements in the conflict, the more nastiness likely to be imbued in the debate. There is not much one can do about that.

  11. I agree with you on Dawkins. He is incredibly civil except when he is responding to dickisheness and deception. The point that the “Don’t be a dick” crowd seems to be missing is that there is always going to be someone who is willing to be offended no matter how sweetly you disagree with them. The mere fact of disagreement will make you a “dick.”

    Communication is not a two-way street.

  12. So is it a dickotomy? And wouldn’t that be rather sore?

    I would add to Greg’s points above: “If you *are* going to be a dick, be *aware* that you’re being a dick.”

    Sometimes a little garnish makes the difference between a bland tummy-filler and a dish fit for royalty. Use the Dick, Luke, but beware of the Dark Side of the Dick…

  13. All three of the examples you give are primarily entertainers, even PZ Myers. Of course it is their role to be OTT in a way that is entertaining, but that is not the only ideal form of communication. For every PZ Myers there are a thousand high school teachers who are not allowed to be dicks in the classroom but who are trying to do the same thing.

  14. Everyone should have an echo chamber of their own,not to “yes” them into believing they are correct, but to hear how they sound. Modulation is perhaps more important than moderation. The successful dicks are not just dicks, but they are talented. I guess I’m saying that it is not how big of a dick you are, but how you use it, that matters.

  15. Irene, who are the successful non-dick so-called “entertainers” who are making a difference? I can not name any.

  16. Something I haven’t seen mentioned much in the dick-vs.-non-dick discussion is the point that advocates of nonviolence have sometimes made: that an important effect of adopting a non-dickish approach is the change it produces in the person adopting it.

    Both sides in this discussion seem prone to the same fallacy: That if approach A has been proven ineffective, then approach B must be effective. So the non-dicks point out that dickliness doesn’t work (as an argument for non-dickliness), while the dicks argue the reverse. But the fact is, they’re both right (about the ineffectiveness of the other side’s approach) and both wrong (about the effectiveness of their own). You’re not going to change someone’s strongly held view by being a dick. You’re not going to change it by being a non-dick. You’re just not going to change it, period.

    I also think any effect in terms of convincing bystanders is probably a lot larger in the minds of participants than it is in reality. At the end of the day, one of the few actual effects of your decision to be a dick or not is the effect it has on you: In one case, you’ll be the person who was a dick in a failed attempt to change the other person’s mind. In the other case, you’ll be the non-dick who failed.

    All else being equal, I think I’d prefer to be the non-dick. At least, I think it’s something worth aspiring to.

  17. Irene, where do you see evidence that teachers are acting like this by the thousands? I agree with you that people see the talented entertainers and miss a lot of the nuance that make their schticks work. However, I see it more in conversational outlets, like blogs and fora.

  18. Rorschach [1]: I think Ange is correct, my point is that it is not so simple. The dichotomy you point out [6] is one way, but one fairly narrow way, of looking at it. I don’t think it is hard to see that this is a complex process. And, it all depends on who you mean by Rebecca, because the one Rebecca that comes to mind is a total dick.

  19. Birger [14]: That is good, but it is also what and dino forum, and palanth were doing for years before blogs reinvented the wheel. But it is good.

    DC: No kidding. I t ink it may be the extra traffic PZ is generating by being in a drug induced coma. Some bloggers get all the breaks.

    John: Your first point, I agree with, and you are right in that it has not been made. The rest of your points … pretty much what I’m trying to say, yes.

  20. If I meet a Creationist, should I throw a fossil over his head?

    I say you should, and by the size of the fossil you chose one can derive your dickiness.
    Tiny trilobites must be enough to make a point, without harming.

  21. I think a person can communicate forcefully, even angrily and still be civil. Richard Dawkins is the best example of such a person. He is able to communicate his position without resorting to Ad Hominem insults.

    We need to ask ourselves what we hope to accomplish with a comment or post. Is it an attempt to persuade an outsider (possibly a person who uses alternative medicine) of rational thinking or is the post at the level of boys slapping each other with towels in the gym shower room.

    Recently I saw a post in PZ’s blog about an 18 year old high school senior who had emailed PZ twice asking him some cosmological questions. Granted, the questions were old, tired points creationists ask when they attempt to play gotcha. PZ posted both letters, wrote a screed detailing the idiocy of the boy and opened the floor for comments. In the (I think) over 500 comments that followed, most were derogatory about the boy, his school, his religion, his city, his future plans, etc. The kid was thoroughly trashed.

    There is a difference in direct and forceful communication and wallowing in spite. Insulting for fun and bonding with peers is counterproductive.

    Instead of ignoring immature emails from an 18 year old kid (I did a lot of dumb stuff at 18), PZ made sure the boy and others like him became antagonized at the freethinkers, skeptics, whatever label you would like to use.

    Many (most?) agnostics/atheists were indoctrinated in religion as children and deconverted many years later. We should communicate honestly, directly and without sugarcoating. It may take decades for a religious person to see the light of reason. Lets’ not stop their progress by being dicks for the fun of it.

  22. There’s a straw man I don’t think has been directly addressed in this discussion, though it’s been touched on a few times.

    Telling someone something they don’t want to hear does not automatically constitute being dick. At no point has Phil Plait or anyone else ever suggested skeptics shouldn’t say what they mean. The test I’ve used is to ask whether a mythical, uninterested observer would think you were being a dick.

    As for examples of P.Z. being a dick, the whole Witless Wanker thing comes to mind.

  23. I think a person can communicate forcefully, even angrily and still be civil. Richard Dawkins is the best example of such a person.

    Actually, Dawkins is a terrible example in this context, precisely because a huge number of believers feel he is a dick. Dawkins is the bΓƒΒͺte noire of atheism, and is routinely castigated as being rude, strident, shrill, and mean…simply for the content of his statements. For many people, the tone of what is said doesn’t matter, it is the mere fact of challenging their beliefs that is considered out-of-bounds in civil discourse.

    And that is one of the big problem I have with the whole “dick” discussion. A large portion of believers think it is rude merely to question their beliefs — should we avoid being dicks by accommodating them? Are we to use their reactions as the metric for civil discourse? What does it mean to be dick — does it just mean that the target feels insulted, no matter what the tone of our arguments are? If so, how are we to proceed?

  24. Pinky, sorry I have to politely disagree about Dawkins. The things he says politely are very offensive, and also wrong. He and a few others have been going around blaming religion for all sorts of evils, the greatest being causing group level violence such as wars. This is a simple-minded view that is absolutely wrong, like blaming a hammer for causing nails to bend over instead of going in straight. Religion is simply a very useful tool for getting humans to go to war with each other, and it is neither required for, nor the ultimate cause of, war. It is just about as offensive as one could possibly be to point to what someone holds as their most central belief and assert that this belief causes most of the suffering and evil in the world. To do so and be very wrong is even worse.

  25. > If I meet a Creationist, should I throw a fossil over his head?

    No. This would contaminate the fossil with recent carbon, causing it to be dated like e.g. “Jurassic, ca. 2348 BC”.

  26. Carmi “I have to politely disagree about Dawkins. The things he says politely are very offensive”

    Dawkins presents well reasoned arguments and evidence to support his assertions. Do you have any to refute them, besides that you find it offensive?

  27. I don’t have a problem with someone arguing that being nice is better than being not nice, But thats not what Phil did.

    Instead of presenting a case with facts and evidence, he used strawmen and appeals to emotion to imply that there is a rising tide of dickishness in the skeptic community. Even that wouldn’t be so bad, if when he was asked to explain what he meant, he didn’t use creationist hand waving tactics to justify it.

    On top of that between the speech and his posts afterwards it was clear this only applied to atheists or people arguing against religion, all other woo need not apply for special treatment.

  28. And let’s not forget, that to some people simply disagreeing with them is being a “dick” in their eyes. Doesn’t matter how nicely you put it, they’re right, you’re wrong, and you don’t have the right to question them, no matter what. Religion tends to be the one that demands this kind of defensive, mindless behavior the most.

    You would have a point in your “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” style of argument, IF religion was actually like a gun. But it’s not. Last I checked, guns don’t threaten people with eternal torture if they don’t do what the gun wants them to.

  29. Carmi: “The things he says politely are very offensive, and also wrong.”

    you may have your causal arrow reversed. They are offensive because they are wrong (to you).

  30. I’ve read Stephanie’s link @#32, and I tend to agree with her. Being aware of your audience – and 9 times out of 10, the people you will influence are NOT whomever you are directly arguing with – and pitching your points for their consideration is probably the most effective technique.

    William Lane Craig, a Christian apologist of some small reputation, is a master at presenting his points to confirm the beliefs of Christians in his audience. He knows he won’t change any atheists’ minds.

    In that lecture, he calls lack of faith ‘absurd’. Indeed, his implications are very offensive to atheists. According to Craig, atheists are inhuman, immoral, unethical, delusional, baby-killing monsters. Yet, I haven’t seen anyone complaining about his tone. There is a double standard, where theists can say anything they please, and atheists are expected to sit there and just take it, politely uncomplaining. So, I think some atheist dickishness is needed, as a defense against theists arguing in bad faith.

    Tulse @35, Neil Degrasse Tyson is a better example of civility in a scientist who educates the public.

    In this clip, he gently chides Richard Dawkins for his ‘barbed’ communication style-

    and Dawkins acknowledges and owns the criticism.

    When discussing the tone of atheist science advocates, I think it’s important to recognize that they all have their individual style. Neil Degrasse Tyson is extremely civil, but he doesn’t need to be a dick because he has the gift of speaking to inspire. Being inspiring is how he reaches people and makes them think.

    Each science educator uses the tools they have at hand, and I think that is a good thing, even when it might include being a dick.

  31. Neil Degrasse Tyson is extremely civil, but he doesn’t need to be a dick because he has the gift of speaking to inspire.

    Perhaps, but he is also in an area that is far less directly challenged by religious faith than Dawkins is. Evolution is far more of a problem for most forms of theism than astrophysics, and most astronomers don’t get told that the Nazis happened because of Copernicus.

  32. Anne H, I liked your links. I agree Tyson is great, Here is a link to another one of his talks. I think it pertains to this discussion, just replace scientists with skeptics when he says them.

  33. Dickishness is in the eye of the beholder. I think Chris Mooney is an uber dick, but I’m sure he’d beg to differ.

  34. David @ 41, no. It was not “clear” that Phil was talking about atheists only. In fact, in some of the discussion surrounding this, he’s talked specifically about the Bigfoot section of, I believe, the JREF forum. He also, within the speech itself, talked about his own dickishness. Considering that he really doesn’t talk about atheism much, that should perhaps be an indicator that things aren’t as “clear” as you may want them to be.

    And enough with the fucking “strawman” spam. When you have a number of skeptics who reacted to his speech with “I saw myself in that, and I think I can do better,” it’s completely unsupportable.

  35. To add to Stephanie’s comment, can we also quit whining about the emotional appeals. This is an emotional issue. Because people have emotions. If you want this all to be perfectly rational, then why even try to defend being a dick?

  36. Tulse @45 – you’re absolutely right; that’s a distinction I missed. Itzac @ 49 brought up what I was trying to say when I said Tyson speaks to inspire – Tyson uses appeals to emotion very effectively.

    I think skeptics need to remember that some tone trolls will never be satisfied, and will take offense no matter what we say because we dare to criticize religion. They’d still complain, even if we set our ‘offensive’ message to really bouncy upbeat music, like this-
    (/tonguefirmlyincheek, and NSFW because of f bombs)

  37. Anne H: “some tone trolls will never be satisfied”

    True, but one shouldn’t use that as an excuse to be a dick, or at least not a “stupid dick,” to use our blog host’s turn of phrase.

    (I submit that if stupid dickery were to have been purged from the anti-theist and skeptical movements, probably the only ones to continue to complain about dickery would be “tone trolls,” and Dr. Plait wouldn’t have made the speech that he did.)

  38. After reading the comments above carefully and thinking about dickishness for a while, I am sticking with my thought that Richard Dawkins is not rude. I agree he may seem that way to many theists, but I’m not basing my opinions on their feelings.

    Keeping in mind: “Language is a tough way to communicate”, we are ships passing in the night if we do not share the same definition of dick.

    The clearest way I can define what dick means to me, when referring to communications with a group that has a radically different world view, is: “A person who obtains amusement for themselves or a peer group by ridiculing those whose world views are different from their’s.”

    Dickishness is determined by intent.

    Thoughts? Is anyone still reading this post? I know in blog time, there are 30 new things to consider and comment on – just on this blog alone.

  39. Pinky, I think the closest I can get right now to a definition of “dick” in this context is someone who engages on a personal level in the place of engaging on ideas with someone they disagree with. I don’t think the amusement is necessary, but it certainly provides a plausible motivation.

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