At the last The Amazing Meeting skeptic conference scientist/blogger Phil Plait gave a talk that has come to be known as the “Don’t Be a Dick” speech. In it he bemoans the fact that there are some skeptics out there who are less than… tactful… when it comes to addressing the idiots overly-credulous members of the general populace. Needless to say it has prompted quite a bit of discussion on the skeptic/atheist blogs out there. The video of the talk was made available about a month ago, but I hadn’t gotten around to watching it until today.
As I sat watching the video it became clear to me that I was one of the people he was complaining about. Phil has since said that he feels that he was misunderstood by some of the folks who have responded to his talk so he tried to be more specific about what he considers being dick-ish:
Perhaps I should have been more clear on what I mean by being a dick. I thought I had been clear, but a lot of people seem to think that I meant anyone who gets upset, or angry, or argues with emotion. I wouldn’t include satire in that category, or comedic work, or even necessarily using insults; tone and attitude count here. Think of it this way: when someone argues that way do you think to yourself, “What a dick”? I don’t; at least not necessarily. I think that way when the person belittles their opponent, uses obviously inflammatory language, or overly aggressively gets in their face.
Y’know. Being a dick.
Yep, done that on more than a few occasions and I don’t regret it at all. The reason why is simple: It’s what they needed to hear.
At the start of the video Phil rhetorically asks the audience how many people had their mind changed by someone calling them an idiot or a retard. In the video you can see that a few people actually raise their hands and he brushes them off as “probably kidding.” I can only assume the brush off occurs because it doesn’t jive with the point of his speech, which is that being a dick to someone will never change their mind. Yet there are many people out there, and I am one of them, who will honestly say that they have had their mind’s changed by being told what an idiot they are. There’s been more than a few topics on which I had wrong beliefs and was acting like an idiot until someone pointed out what an idiot I was being about the subject.
Phil says all that does is make people defensive and resort to knee-jerk rationalizations and that is often true, I’m certainly guilty of it, but that doesn’t mean they won’t stop to consider the accusation of idiocy later when they have cooled down and are no longer in the midst of the argument. Not everyone will, but people who are anything like I am probably will and prompting that self-reflection can be the beginning of change.
Which isn’t to suggest that it’s always a good way to convince people of the wrongness of their beliefs or that it’s a tactic that will work on everyone you come across. It’s not even necessarily the first, second, or third approach you should take in any given situation, but to say that it never works is to deny reality. Some people need a swift metaphorical kick to the ass.
It should go without saying that the context of any given situation plays a hand in determining how much of a dick one should be. It’s probably not the best approach when in the middle of a formal dinner party, though I doubt that would stop Tim Minchin, and work is probably better saved for doing actual work. If the person you’re addressing shows any signs of being open to discussion then dickishness could indeed be counter-productive. The truth is that even us dicks aren’t dicks all the time. Anyone who has met PZ Myers first hand — often one of the first people pointed to as an example of a skep-dick — will tell you he’s hardly the spittle flecked raving monster in real life that his detractors paint him to be. For that matter, neither am I. Despite what I may have named my blog. We can be more than reasonable and pleasant, and often are, but we can also be dicks when the situation calls for it. Which it sometimes does.
Of course there are some people out there for which no amount of ass-kicking will change their mind. But then nor will any amount of accommodating them with nicey-nicey non-confrontational presentations of the facts. Phil makes the mistake of assuming that it’s always the objective of the “dick” to change the mind of the target of their dickiness. I can’t speak for anyone else, but often times the person I’m in the middle of ridiculing is not the person I’m trying to reach. My real targets are the people who are watching the spectacle.
Phil is quite right when he says that the dream that someday all of humanity will reach some form of critical thinking Nirvana where all forms of pseudo-science and woo-woo are but faded memories will probably never happen. Critical thinking, as he points out, is hard and not the way we’re wired to think. Logically this means that there will always be some people who will believe even the stupidest of ideas no matter what facts and evidence you’re able to provide or how nice you are to them. We have a term for those people. We call them Lost Causes. As the satiric poster I included says: “It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.” I suppose if you wanted to be cynical about it, and I’ve never been afraid to be cynical, you could call these people “useful idiots.”
So yes, I’m a dick from time to time. Especially to the obvious lost causes who show up spoiling for a fight. If the chances of changing their mind are pretty much nil then I’m not sure I see the point in being nice about it. I’m definitely not going to hold back against the ones that are being dickish themselves. I don’t claim that being a dick is the only approach one should take or even that it’s the best, but I do feel that it has its place.
Phil metaphorically argues in his video that swinging wildly at a nail with a hammer will only destroy the wall. I say that when the wall is what’s preventing the truth from getting inside then destroying it should be the goal. I mean, why the fuck would you want to nail it closed any more than it already is?