Are we phalluses?

August 22, 2010 • 7:15 am

I finally got a chance to watch Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” speech from The Amazing Meeting #8, which he’s put online at Bad Astronomy.  Plait has a further post in which he links to the diverse reactions to the talk that appeared in the blogosphere, and a final post in which he reiterates all the support he got for his talk.

As you may know, Plait’s theme was one of civility.  He argues that skeptics and atheists must be respectful and civil if they want to win others to their cause.  But he finds that politeness on the wane. “In some specific places,” he claims, “the tone of what we’re doing is decaying, and instead of relying on the merits of the arguments, which is what critical thinking is really all about, what evidence based reasoning is all about— it seems that vitriol and venom are on the rise.”

In the talk, Plait says that all too often skeptics behave like this:

When you’re dealing with someone who disagrees with you on some matter, what is your goal? What is your goal? What are you trying to accomplish?  Insulting them, yelling at them, calling them brain damaged or morons or baby rapers, may make you feel good. . . but is your goal to score a cheap point, or is your goal to win the damn game?

I must say that when I heard that, it immediately reminded me of this:

Many of my colleagues are fans of Dawkins, PZ, and their ilk and make a point AT CONSERVATION EVENTS to mock the religious to their face, shout forced laughter at them, and call them “stupid,” “ignorant” and the like – and these are events hosted by religious moderates where we’ve been ASKED to attend. They think it’s the way to be a good scientist, after all.

So what do you think happens when you spit in someone’s face, mock them openly, figuratively throw them to the ground and kick dirt in their face – and then ask “now we really need your help!!”? When my colleagues do this, you can watch the attention visibly disappear from the crowd when you finally start talking about conservation and real science.

That, of course, is the famous “Exhibit A”, written by the pseudonymous “Tom Johnson” and posted by Chris Mooney at The Intersection. The incident described by “Johnson” turned out to be fiction.

What struck me most strongly about the DBAD talk, and reminded me of the Tom Johnson affair, was Plait’s complete failure to provide evidence for what he was saying.   Not only did he not give a single instance of the rudeness and stridency that he finds so ubiquitous, but also gave no evidence that skeptics who behave that way have been less effective than others.  This was curious because, after all, the prime requirement for good skepticism is that you give evidence for what you think, and demand it from others.

Plait says that he deliberately refrained from giving evidence; indeed, he almost seems to claim that this lacuna was a virtue:

(From the talk): What I see is that hubris is running rampant, and that egos are just out of check and sometimes logic in those situations is left by the wayside.  I could go into specifics, but I’m not going to—you can find these for yourself: you know where to look.

(From his post): The author of this one says I don’t give specific examples, and therefore because he hasn’t seen the insults they don’t exist… and then accuses me of a strawman argument! I find that funny; finding examples about which I was speaking is trivially easy.

(From another of his posts): And one last point: a lot of folks were speculating that in my talk I was targeting specific people such as PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, even Randi himself. I wasn’t. I was thinking fairly generically when I wrote the talk, and though I did have some specific examples of dickery in mind, the talk itself was not aimed at any individual person.

Now if examples of this behavior are “trivially easy” to find, why didn’t he give any? It seems to me that if you’re giving a talk about how bad behavior is wrecking the cause of skepticism, the first thing you need to do is give examples of that behavior.  That’s simply good argument.

There are several possibilities for why Plait didn’t.  The first is that the examples don’t exist. I don’t think this accounts for his failure to give any.  He surely has instances of “bad behavior” in mind—indeed, he says so.  And yes, you can find them in the comments section of several atheist websites.  But I find the claim of pervasive bad behavior unconvincing. If you look at the major voices of the skeptical movement, at least those that I read regularly, I think you’ll see very, very few cases of opponents being called “brain damaged” or “baby rapers”.  In general, the discourse is not about name-calling, but about facts and rational argument.  Even P. Z. Myers, who of course immediately came to most people’s minds when hearing Plait’s talk, gives arguments for his views, arguments that take up much more space than his occasional epithet.  True, many people found the “cracker-crushing” episode offensive, but P.Z. was not doing it just to tick people off.  People seem to have forgotten that he was using the episode to make a strong point about religiously-based persecution.  And that is one episode out of literally thousands of posts by atheists that deal not with impaling crackers, but giving rational arguments.

I think Plait’s argument, like that of “Tom Johnson,” attacks something of a straw man. You can certainly pick out some examples of unwise invective on the part of skeptics, but is the overall tone really that degrading? What percentage of all of our arguments are characterized by calling people baby rapers or brain dead? And where are the data saying that even that sort of invective has led to big setbacks for the movement? There are none, of course, so that arguments of this type are purely subjective impressions.  There are no supporting data.

Now Plait does have a point.  Clearly you’re not going to win friends by, say, talking about evolution in a church while at the same time calling your audience a bunch of superstitious morons.  There is a time and a place for strong language, sarcasm, and insult.  But really, how often do we do that in public, and in places where such behavior would obviously turn people off? If it were that frequent, Tom Johnson wouldn’t have had to make up stories!

Another explanation for Plait’s failure to document his claims is that by doing so he’d have to name prominent skeptics or atheists. (P. Z. again comes to mind.)  And he wouldn’t want to do that because it would anger some of his friends or allies.  I think this is the correct explanation, though of course only Plait knows for sure.  But if this is the case, I give him no kudos.  Atheists and skeptics shouldn’t give their friends a pass if their behavior is part of a trend that is supposedly so counterproductive.  I am a big fan of the National Center for Science Education and its fight to rid our schools of creationism, but I don’t hesitate to call them out for accommodationism.

To take only the latest instance of public behavior by someone often called uncivil, shrill, and impolite, have a look at Richard Dawkins’s television show on faith-based schools in the UK that is posted just below.  I defy anyone to find his arguments anything other than rational and calm, and his behavior toward his religious interlocutors anything other than polite and respectful, even as he opposes everything they stand for.

Plait is a terrific advocate of science and a great public speaker.  His speech was all warm and fuzzy—who could object to it?—and, as he notes, got a lot of support, even making some people cry with relief and gratitude.  But I don’t find it terribly convincing, and certainly not a reason for us “strident” skeptics to change our behavior.  To do that we’d need not just assertions, but evidence.  In its absence, let all of us do what we can, remembering, as we nearly always do, to adjust our tone to our audience.

330 thoughts on “Are we phalluses?

  1. It’s been interesting watching the ripples spreading from this controversy, and I even posted my own rebuttals here and here. I’m glad you noticed both the unwillingess to provide support for his statements, and the link to accommodationism.

    The worst part of all this was watching Phil resort to several tactics that skeptics actually decry: anecdotal evidence, straw men, and failing to support his standpoint when asked. I even noted the relaxation of a skeptical approach when dealing with “friends,” which is a bit hypocritical (and seems to apply to his friendship with Mooney.) It’s been disheartening.

    I can’t disagree with his overall message, for anyone who is actively pursuing advocacy for critical-thinking – but not everyone has this as a goal, and treating them as hurting a “cause” is misguided. But overall, I think the approach is dictated by the circumstances, and no “rule” is able to apply universally. Skeptics on the whole handle civility much better than most of those opposing them in forums.

    1. “Skeptics on the whole handle civility much better than most of those opposing them in forums.”

      Making the point that one person’s anecdotal evidence is more valid than another’s?

      In my experience my critiques are treated with less civility than I treat others… 😉

      1. Making the point that one person’s anecdotal evidence is more valid than another’s?

        Not a bad observation, really. Backing up my assertion would require some statistics that would be very hard to compile 😉

        More specifically, though, is how to quantify the definition of “civility” – as others have said, this depends on your viewpoint.

        Had I prefaced my statement with “In my experience,” as you did, the statement itself would only have been changed in perception, but the onus would be on you to show that my experience was atypical or biased.

        Is it safe to say that, without evidence to the contrary, a problem doesn’t exist – the “null set” style of proof? Probably not. But I will say, if you’re going to lecture any group of people on an issue, resorting to logical/skeptical fallacies to support your standpoint (or, in this case, avoid supporting it) is not a good move among skeptics.

  2. Phil enjoys whining about tone and bad words from time to time; he does it at least every couple of weeks. He doesn’t have a legitimate point to make, he just needs to flex his muscles and convince himself that people are still paying attention to him.
    The best thing to do is just to smile and nod for a bit. I like him and think we’re better off having him on our side than not, but he does get tedious.

    1. I personally cut him some slack on this one. His stated goal and his apparent livelihood is education to all ages.

      Plus, AFAIU that saying is a direct quote from his self professed “man crush” Wil Wheaton. (“Wesley Crusher” in “Star Trek Next Generation”.)

      But yeah, it gets tedious, whether it is his commenters’ fault or not. Not a good thing in a lecturer and popularizer.

      1. Maybe that’s why I keep thinking he sounds, well, like a wimp. Maybe the way he speaks just reminds me of a lot of people I’ve met who have no backbone. I know he’ll stand up to those who fall under his pet peeve’s (moon landing deniers, for example), but he’s always sounded wishy-washy to me. Maybe that’s why – he’s trying to be all nice and appealing to everyone.

  3. I was not impressed about Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” speech. Thanks Jerry for pointing out so many points on its failure to be representative of critical thought.

  4. Phil’s talk sounded to me a bit like a pro-framers anti-shreudness talk. I agree that we all have to be civil when talking about anything, but I wonder how effective it is to say, let us be nice and try to seduce Ray Comfort to accepting evolution. Clearly, as Prof.Dawkins always argues, that these two approaches work on different occasions. When Prof.Myers was debating Dr. Simmons, he used some harsh language twice and he was asked to be civil and stop doing that twice, but this language was – I think – necessary to put down Dr.Simmons ignorant arrogance.

    1. I listened to Phil’s speech half expecting that the complaints I’d read about it were overstated and that Phil’s point had been misrepresented. After all, Phil himself went to great lengths to say this is what happened, although he didn’t seem to answer any specific objections but rather say that people in general who disagreed with him were wrong in one or more of a handful of ways, which didn’t bode well.

      I finally listened to the speech yesterday and found myself agreeing with the critics more than with Phil. At least some of the objections were certainly well-founded. As for Jerry, the thing that stood out most for me was the lack of evidence. Phil adopted a sneering, aggressive tone when he ‘quoted’ the mysterious skeptics who are ruining it for everyone else. This seemed like a kind of sleight of hand to hide the fact that he didn’t actually have any convincing arguments.

      I was also worried about his assumption that all skeptics have (or should have) the same goals (converting as many people as possible) and this was the only criterion against which to measure success.

      I would have thought that by now most people would agree that we need a range of voices, a range of goals and a range of skills if critical thinking is going to become more common. Ridicule and rudeness has its place: for example, it seems as though it might help strengthen communities of skeptics and alert people who haven’t really thought very hard about it to the idea that we can be angry about people spreading bullshit. Restrained and polite logical argument might not get you so far in those cases, who knows?

      Each to his own, I say, and the skeptical movement – if there really is such a thing – seems the stronger for it. Our capacity to squabble amongst ourselves is part of what makes it strong. It’s hard to see how having to toe a party line on politeness would promote critical thinking. It would certainly make the exercise a lot less interesting.

      My final point for now is that I’ve seen Phil talk before, both live and on video. He’s always been entertaining, interesting and has told a good story. By contrast, the DBAD talk was weak in terms of entertainment, interest and structure as well as in content. It was repetitive and didn’t tell any kind of story. In other words, it was a rant and a fairly whiny, insubstantial rant at that.

      1. Thanks for the walk through, I couldn’t stomach it myself!

        FWIW I agree with the plurality conclusion.

        I certainly wouldn’t try to censor the other sides arguments or strategy, as long as they don’t harm other ability to act. Which, of course, the requirements of the New Accommodationism would do if they are implemented, just as much as fundie theocracy would replace democracy.

        Far better to use the science way of the market of ideas, even on how the message should out! (And ironically, it is the non-framers frankness and democracy that is more along the original lines.)

        One would think that a former scientist like Plait would support that, but apparently the cognitive dissonance is strong in that one.

        sneering … rant

        It sounds terrible, although I’m not surprised – religion deludes anyone in contact with it, cognitive dissonance is the means to make it work, and sanctimony is the trait that it inaugurates.

  5. I disagree with him from the outset. He started the speech by asking how many people had given up a belief because they were insulted over it. He then claimed that it never happens. I firmly disagree. I sat on the fence with theism for a long time, and it wasn’t until I started looking at it as an outsider that I realized just how ridiculous it was. I agree that you aren’t going to convert a hardliner that way- but you may plant the seed of doubt or pull someone to your side of the fence.

    1. I’ve actually helped push a few folks along that way myself. Every time some horrible atrocity occurs or we see something crazy mentioning God’s divine plan tends to make it seem really silly and loosens people up a bit from their devotion to it.

  6. Well, Phil does consider M**ney a friend, and he did get testy recently when he plugged an interview on Point of Inquiry and we had the gall to not fawn over his choice of outlet.

    1. Can you point us to this? I’d like to hear his opinion on the new PoI. It seems clear the there was a rift over accomodationism over that podcast.

      1. Here is his comment on the post announcing his interview on POI:

        The gist:
        “Folks, when someone writing a blog mentions specifically that someone is their friend, even if you disagree with that person, perhaps insulting them is not the most polite thing to do. Disagreement is fine, and discussion of why is fine, but seriously, the insults? Take ‘em elsewhere.”

        1. Heh, I didn’t even suggest an insult, I merely noted that I couldn’t enjoy Mooney. Disagreement indeed.

          1. To be fair, I did actually call Mooney a cynical, unethical hack and a bridge burning expert in that thread. I just thought that this fell under disagreement and discussing why.

            1. Gee, you’d think Phil would be interested in what works and doesn’t work when trying to spread the skeptic message.

              I’m another person who won’t listen to Mooney. I hardly think he’s the expert in “Science Communication” that he imagines himself to be. He’s divisive and unprofessional. I’d be very disappointed if Phil went down that path. But it does seem that Phil is increasingly only interested in those who support his “accommodationism” style.

              I’d sure like to see some data that this accommodationism works. I doubt that “accommodating” faith makes the faithful more likely to question faith as a means of knowledge. The pew data indicate otherwise.

            2. And in related irony, I see that after his numerous trash talking of people who actually have the guts to stand up and tell people when they’re supporting unscientific ideas, Mooney’s got a new book out complaining about how America is so unscientific.

              What a hypocrit.

            3. I had been a faithful (hah!) listener to the POI with DJ. I even listened to the softball Behe (or was it Dembski) interview. Now I still subscribe but if Mooney is the interviewer I delete it. Listening to him is like listening to Ken Ham. Turns my stomach and I have real science and skeptic podcasts I can listen to that don’t feature that hypocritical POS.


      1. Um, I assume it is meant to be humorous, the ** asterisks fits the form of the oo spelling.

        As long as it’s funny we’re g**d: even Plait didn’t object to humor.

        [I assume you didn’t see the humor, because if you did your comment would be you being a dick. See how easy that is? It is because it is based on a slippery-slope fallacy, “Plait’s Phallacy”.]

        1. Sure, it is meant to be funny. Why is it funny? Because the implication is that Chris Mooney–who again, is quite possibly my least favorite blogger and communicator in the skeptical movement–cannot be directly referenced. The ‘joke’ is that his name is an epithet.

          Otherwise, it isn’t funny. There’s n*thing funny about replacing a rand*m ‘o’.

          Suggesting that someone is so reprehensible that their very name is offensive to the eye is indeed funny. ‘Funny’ is not the same as ‘not dickish’.

          As an example, consider any racist joke you’ve ever heard. Were they funny? Clearly, to some people, yes. Does that make them ‘all good’? Obviously not. So no, we are not all good as long as a joke makes a third party laugh. That is not the gold-standard of not being a dick.

          1. Thinking of racism in jokes…

            What’s the worst part about two black guys going over a cliff in a van?

            They were my friends.

            What do you call a black person flying a plane?

            (Also acceptable is “The pilot you racist asshole.”)

            How many lesbians does it take to change a lightbulb?

            One, unless she’s too short or not mechanically inclined, in which case she may get someone else to do it for her.

            Okay, they aren’t traditionally funny but I love them because the joke is really on the people expecting a racist, demeaning punchline.

            Carry on…

          2. If this were the intersection, you would have to scramble certain names to get them through a filter. Jerry doesn’t do that, to the best of my knowledge. When I see asterisks I think of the idiotic spelling of the wizard of Earthsea, Ged, as G-d. It’s not his truename, so they have no power over him.

  7. Great post Jerry. I have read and watched a significant amount of Dawkins related material and I have yet to hear or read anything from him that could be described as strident. I have actually found him to be extremely polite, patient and conciliatory. I agree we should adjust our tone depending on our audience, but like you, I have not heard anything like what Plait describes from any of the major writers or commentators in the blog sphere. I wish they would provide the evidence already!

  8. I am sorry, Dr Coyne, but I have to disagree with you again-the second time in 48 hours.
    There is nothing warm and fuzzy about taking swipes at straw men. It is inane.

    1. “Insightful Ape
      Posted August 22, 2010 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      I am sorry, Dr Coyne, but I have to disagree with you again-the second time in 48 hours.
      There is nothing warm and fuzzy about taking swipes at straw men. It is inane.”

      If you are against straw men then you should be for Coyne. It is Plait who is attacking Straw Men, so much so that he cannot (will not) provide a single example that proves his argument, let alone enough examples to prove a trend, nor evidence that such an unproven trend has actually had the negative consequences he claims.

      1. Came across the wrong way, I see.
        It was specifically this statement I was objecting to.
        “Plait is a terrific advocate of science and a great public speaker. His speech was all warm and fuzzy—who could object to it?—and, as he notes, got a lot of support, even making some people cry with relief and gratitude.”

        It was precisely because of Plait’s use of straw man arguments that I disagree to it being called warm and fuzzy. At least, as far as a subjective assessment goes, I wouldn’t have seen it that way. While some may have cried in relief, I would have shrugged and walked out.

  9. A few comments I made on Plait’s blogpost threads. The second person “you” in these posts refer to Phil.

    That interaction Phil describes with the young woman at the end of his talk still strikes me as condescending and patronizing for two reasons. 1) your explanation of the age of the moon I’m sure went over her head which is an argument for authority and 2) You punted the evolution question! You never found a way to unequivocally state that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, just glossed over that “minor” issue.
    Contrast this with the way Richard Dawkins deals with groups of children in a recent documentary called The Faith School Menace. He treats them as equals and gives deep accurate answers to these important questions.

    I’m confused about the chess analogy. What is it you are saying we should sacrifice for the sake of the final goal? Principles? The truth?
    A rhetorical exercise like framing and accommodation is precisely the problem we are trying to fix. To scale back on a conclusion for the sake of “feelings” would make us no different than our cultural competitors.p

    I enjoyed this quote from EvolutionBlog

    “Let me also suggest that it is never a good argument to complain about someone’s tone by saying something like, “You’re not going to convince anyone!” That is a lazy argument used exclusively by people more interested in seeming above it all than in actually engaging the issues. Incivility is a tool in the arsenal. It is very good for calling attention to an issue and to a point of view. If the incivility is backed up by a good argument it can be very powerful.”

    1. Phil’s answer to one of my posts bears copying here.

      “Framing and accommodation are not problems, and the fact that so many skeptics think they are is a major problem. A lot of people have redefined these terms to make them scapegoats. But framing is simply changing the way you say an argument so that your opponent can hear and process it. I wouldn’t use calculus to describe planetary motion to second graders, for example. That’s framing.
      And accommodation is not dumbing down or changing the core of the argument to appease your opponent, it’s simply accepting that their frame of reference is different than yours, and – gasp – accommodating that. A lot of religious people are not creationists, but as long as we lump them all together we do ourselves no favors. A lot of religious people would be on our side if so many skeptics would simply accept that we don’t agree on everything, but we do on some things.
      I’ll note a lot of libertarians are skeptics, and I disagree quite strongly with a lot of their stances, but I also accept their input when it comes to other skeptical topics. That’s accommodation, too.”

      1. Hmm… He knows or should know (as a long-term blogosphere resident) that ‘framing’ and ‘accommodation’ carry specific meanings & connotations. By ignoring these, he’s ignoring the whole message and so dismissing a strawman.

        Most disappointing.

      2. Wow. Phil is blaming me for redefining terms? Bullshit. Phil may want to try and impose his meanings. I observe what Framers and Accommodationists do to inform my understanding of the terms.

        I remember Phil mostly staying clear of the big framing debate when Nisbet went down in flames and Mooney started to deteriorate. He made a few comments that made me think he supported Nisbet’s and Mooney’s position, but he stayed pretty low key throughout that debate.

        The post you quoted has removed all doubt for me though. Phil is an accommodationist. No big deal, I don’t ostracize people for that, but it is disappointing.

        1. Like his pals, Phil accommodates religion… he doesn’t really accommodate astronomy woo. This is what pisses me off about “accommodationism”.

          Religiosity is strongly correlated with scientific ignorance. So if Phil really wanted to help people think more skeptically he might not want to be so accommodating of the vector by which people come to feel special and saved for what they believe. Why not treat it the way he treats other woo?

          Phil is a moving speaker, but this doesn’t excuse him for spreading prejudice against nonbelievers in Tom Johnson fashion. That’s a cheap way to generate emotion. I think he ought to apologize for doing so until or unless he can demonstrate that a bunch of dickish atheists exist AND that they hurt some cause– or at least demonstrate that accommodationism is demonstrably superior in making people think more scientifically than the people he thinks are being dickish.

          Is that so much to ask for a scientist making a claim? Does he not realize that this cabal of dickish atheists is not as evident in reality as they are in his head? if he wasn’t aware, then he should now be aware by all the misinterpretation and guessing regarding the subject on his own blog.

          Is Phil aiming for a Templeton?

          1. I agree to most of this. (Not the T*ton; what did that come from?)

            But this:

            Tom Johnson fashion

            I would say it is a lot worse than TJ. TJ’s actions, in all its dishonesty, was a mere distraction and a falsifiable one at that: he was found out.

            What PP does would never be accepted in a court where people are asked to defend their actual or perceived actions/non-actions. The New Accommodationist court is one where you simply don’t need evidence, because you are found Guilty No Matter What!

            It is inconceivable for NA(c)’s to be wrong. Their beliefs tells them so!

            And while TJ never had political clout outside NA(c), PP has that within the skeptics (soon to be New Skeptics) movement. He is on the Dark Side, for real.

            1. Pun, no pun? Anyway, it’s so -09. And we of all people should embrace plurality.

              I’ll admit that labeling can go to far though.

            2. Well, maybe worse than TJ’s in some ways, but decidedly not in all ways. TJ in his YNH guise did name names, but he did it to smear the people he named. In that sense he’s in a completely different territory from Phil Plait.

            3. We could stick to calling people names and referring to them as being on the ‘Dark Side’, I suppose. But then we would be calling people names, which is precisely the behavior that this post claims isn’t prevalent in skepticism.

            4. “But then we would be calling people names, which is precisely the behavior that this post claims isn’t prevalent in skepticism.”

              Strawman, because there was no name calling.

              And why would you object to New Accommodationism influencing other groups through leadership functions being characterized as “the Dark Side”? An honest political movement doesn’t try to push their own politics into other movements by non-democratic methods!

              As for what the post claims, it was way more qualified than your next strawman:

              “And yes, you can find them in the comments section of several atheist websites. But I find the claim of pervasive bad behavior unconvincing. If you look at the major voices of the skeptical movement, at least those that I read regularly, I think you’ll see very, very few cases of opponents being called “brain damaged” or “baby rapers”.”

              But really, the faithist claim is larger than one of trading anecdotes (because for every one of theirs, others can come up with counter examples). It was of statistics and its trend (bad respectively rising), and efficiency (bad). None of that is in evidence.

              Ironically, even if you had found one example here, it is still anecdote. How can that be so hard to understand?

            5. Actually, the word ‘fatheist’ is an insult. It is a name.

              Microraptor specifically said ‘could we just stick to calling them faitheists.’

              So, in fact, name calling was suggested, and that is what I was responding to.

            6. I was asking if we could just call them faithiests instead of coining more terms to refer to the same group of people.

            7. Phil engaged in name calling when he implied that a bunch of people in the skeptic community are dicks. Per my definition of dick, that is definitely dickish behavior. Or maybe “tone troll” is more accurate.

              Compared to “dick”, I think faitheist is pretty gentle. It’s a good name for those who have “belief in belief” and those who think certain religious woo should be accommodated in a way that they don’t intend to accommodate other woo.

              If one doesn’t want to be called a faitheist, then perhaps they shouldn’t be a dick… er “tone troll” protecting the hurt feelings of the faithful.

          2. I think it’s a move towards two things – reducing people calling you bad names and hurting their feelings (and your own), and the short-sighted goals. This belief of not questioning religious beliefs so that they might (big “might”) accept evolution is treating the symptom, but not the cause (which is magical thinking). It may have a short term benefit (and I’m not sure the data supports this), but it definitely has no long term benefit in finding a solution (getting rid of magical thinking). Different ideas of where the problem lies and what the goal should be. They short-termers want fast, easy results but don’t care for the future (it seems to me, that is). Who cares if we’ll still be fighting creationists with the same arguments twenty years from now, if we have peace and quiet now?

      3. Plait via Somite

        “I wouldn’t use calculus to describe planetary motion to second graders, for example. That’s framing.”

        Wow, what a disingenuous explanation of framing. In fact, it isn’t an explanation of framing but an example of dishonest, or, at the very least, disingenuous, framing.

        Framing is not about what level of mathematics to describe to an audience. More typically framing is recasting and buttressing ones position by casting the argument in words and contexts that create a visceral reaction that favors the position. The classic example is the framing of estate taxes as “Death Taxes”. Who could oppose a “Death Tax”?

        So, framing isn’t merely an educator’s choice of how sophisticated and detailed an explanation to make to specific audiences but is often a way to insincerely misrepresent one’s argument in a way that makes rational counter argument on the merits difficult. Thus Plait’s misrepresentation of, and generic approval of, framing is inexcusable and baffling.

        1. It takes some time before one can psych out someone. With this development, Plait shows clearly how intellectually dishonest he is (his style of teaching never appealed to me, because I need concentrated pushing of my mental limits and tension to keep myself awake and focused long enough to learn).

          Perhaps he is just naive? How can that be? He is an educated and intelligent adult living in the real world! Even if it is just ‘innocence’ on his part, I don’t want to learn good stuff from a drip. I want to be inspired by the teacher’s personality as much as the subject.

          Activist atheists do what the accommodationists do not–we ask for evidence, and with evidence we would modify our approach if it shown that we are doing more harm than good. We give them the Overton window, what do we get back? Nothing. Except indignation and bland analogies like the silly playing well in the sandbox.

          Until then, we embrace a multi-styled way of encouraging rationality. The politniks are just silly if they think that everyone thrives on politeness. I never did and never will.

    2. In addition to “you’re never going to convince anyone”, I also think “he’s preaching to the choir” is an inane complaint. How do they know?! This is often said about Dawkins even though the massive amount of books sold and his “Converts Corner” demonstrates otherwise.

      I suspect the accommodationists are the ones “preaching to the choir” (the “belief in belief” choir.)

      Why are those telling others that they aren’t going to convince anyone so lame in providing evidence that their own methods are more convincing? (Did Phil’s speech make anyone less of a dick or more skeptical?)

  10. Thomas Jefferson disagrees with Phil Plait and shows us why Plait is wrong:

    “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”

    Sometimes mockery, ridicule or satire is more effective than a dry, reasoned argument alone. Mockery can be used to demonstrate the vacuity of nonsensical arguments far more effectively than the recitation of syllogisms and data. One need look no further than PZ Myers “The Courtier’s Reply” to see this to be true.

    Had he lived in another time I guess that Plait would be condemning the incivility of Voltaire and Jonathan Swift, saying how Candide and A Modest Proposal all hurt the cause of rational thinking.

    Sorry Phil Plait, but ridicule is a valid tool in the quiver to be used against nonsense, and I don’t think we can win without it. To say otherwise is just to reprise Unscientific America, without supporting data, again. But, I suppose, Plait’s talk is likley to get him a booking on the Christ Mooney Show–er, I mean Point of Inquiry.

    1. Sometimes I just want to convince the person that their position — e.g., Creationism, or a racist or homophobic attitude — is too ridiculous to repeat in public. I don’t expect to convince them that it’s wrong — usually such a person has a lifetime of practice in avoiding evidence and twisting logic, and I don’t think anything I can say will change that.

      But I can make them shut up about it, at least around me.

      So, my aim is not always to convince someone of my point of view. Sometimes it’s just to get them to STFU and maybe, just maybe, engage their brain before pontificating on that topic in the future.

      And yes, that can be viewed as dickish. So what? I’m not out to be such a person’s friend, anyway.

    2. Scote, all that you’ve demonstrated is that you can’t recognise an appeal to authority before you make it. Calling you names may or may not make you realise that in a clearer and concise way, but I’m skeptical it would help.

  11. I would like to point out that Dr. Phil doesn’t follow his own advice when it comes to anti-vaxxers. He doesn’t pull punches with them and often stops just short of calling them baby killers. Why should that subject get a pass but something like religion doesn’t?

    1. But that’s different, because the anti-vaxxers hold profoundly irrational beliefs unsupported by evidence that can be dangerous to themselves and the public at large.

      …oh, wait…

  12. I spent a while yesterday watching both Dawkins’ Faith Schools video and Plait’s Don’t Be A Dick speech. My first thought was of how many religious people single out Dawkins as being insulting, vindictive, dismissive and vitriolic yet when I watched the video I was struck by how often he would give the faithful a chance to speak in their defence and often wait several minutes before expressing his disagreement, a very courteous and generous thing to do, yet he’s often described as being practically monstrous. So before deciding just how seriously to take these accusations of dickishness, I would really like to see the examples myself. I know from practical experience how hyperbolic the accusations can be.

    My second thought was that acting like dicks and insulting people can be very effective. Maybe not in a one-on-one situation but in public, sure. As an example, Penn & Teller’s Bullshit is about as dickish as you get on tv, with them parading out people and then insulting them, using editing tricks to make them look like dimwits, insulting them some more, shouting swears and giving only a few token authorities to rebut them. And yet in the cases where I’ve supported some of the things they called ‘Bullshit’, after I calmed down from the unfairness of their hatchet job, I found myself feeling very uncomfortable about supporting those positions and in a couple cases I have completely reversed my positions. Maybe they could do it without the insults, but I have to say that insults do work. People don’t like to be a part of a group that’s treated like a joke and, in my case at least, I made sure to triple check my facts to make sure I wanted to belong in that group. Turns out I didn’t.

    Maybe that’s not generalizable but since the only example of shouting insults and calling people morons is “Bullshit” and it has definitely changed my mind, I’m strongly inclined to say that Phil is wrong on this one.

      1. I was a big believer in organic farming. I bought their sales pitch hook, line & sinker until ‘Bullshit’ forced me to look deeper. I think now that it’s almost a new religion, worshiping naturalism but before I thought it was _the_ path to sustainability, health and environmentalism.

    1. Were Phil actually correct, he would obtain permission from his ‘friends’ to reveal their dickish behavior.
      That he has steadfastly refused to present a scintilla of evidence for either the frequency of dickish behavior, nor the supposed destructive consequences of same, leads me to the only logical conclusion: he has none, and is railing against his own confabulation.

  13. In contrast, I’ve also recently watched Jen McCreight’s talk Edgy yet friendly (via Friendly Atheist). She says many of the same things that Phil Plait wanted to get across, including “don’t be a jerk”. But she manages to do so without suggesting that there are whole groups of people in the atheist movement who are oblivious enough to scream in people’s faces. She gives concrete examples, with concrete advice on what to do, and what not to do.

    Let’s just say it was instructive to watch both talks, and try and figure out why one irked me, and the other didn’t.

    1. In short, you can vouch for non-stridency (not always the best or only option) without being a dick about it?

      Imagine that!

      1. I liked her video too.

        Apparently, you can encourage a gentler approach without inferring that a bunch of unnamed people in your audience are dicks. It also helps to give evidence of approaches you find helpful versus the unhelpful (as Jen did.)

        It gets annoying when people seem to be saying “be more like me” when there’s no evidence that being more like them is more useful in achieving one’s goal than those they imagine are “hurting the cause.”

        I also liked Dawkins approach in the movie. Far from being a dick, he let the other side speak for themselves and let the audience draw their own conclusions. And yet many people imagined Phil was speaking about him in his DBAD speech.

        And who doesn’t love watching PZ eviscerate someone who has been a dick to him? Although many people thought Phil was talking about PZ, I suspect PZ has spread rational thought to more people than Phil, though I don’t doubt that many creationists and faitheists think of him as a dick.

        The worst thing about Phil’s speech is that he allowed his audience to assume that the people THEY thought were dicks was who HE was talking about even though they, themselves, might have been the dicks he had in mind. The daftest, most dickish person could have thought “Phil’s right– people should stop being dicks and be more like me!” and been “moved to tears” by Phil’s speech. I doubt the people I think of as dicks recognize themselves as dicks. For example, I think Mooney is a much bigger dick than the gnu atheists he imagines are causing America to be unscientific. I think “Tom Johnson” is an uber dick and part of the problem more than part of any solution.

            1. Mooney is a ‘dick’ to every single honest person on the planet.
              That can’t be the explanation, surely?

  14. Not that it will help but every time I see an accommodationist make this whine, I ask for him to put on proof and remind him of Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I point out that the change we need is the change of the future that people like Phil would rather throw away for the peace of today, like MLK said:

    First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

    Because that’s what Phil and the accommodationist preach. Don’t make waves. Don’t stand up for science. Don’t stand up for the truth. Be self-effacing. Be namby-pamby.

    Make peace with the religious so they can have their fairy tales. Don’t challenge them. Agree that faith, and by extension its stories and beliefs, is compatible with science, even though it’s fairly obvious that it’s not.

    As we have seen, to get acceptance of science in a culture, religion must fade into weak state, bordering on obscurity. And unless it is pushed back, like all power structures, it will not, like the white supremacist, go down without a fight.

    The hard-core religious understand — this is, on both sides, and existentialist battle. The loser dies or emerges so crippled that it becomes ineffective.

    1. Wow! That MLK quote sums it up perfectly.
      I respect honest rabid fundamentalists far more than the weak-kneed goddly-coddlers:- who prostitute their honesty & integrity for an illusory short-term minor gain.

      1. Absolutely moving and apt quote from MLK. Thanks.

        Though I think that a multi-styled approach is OK, I don’t think it is anything but disgusting and unacceptable to accommodate religion–not to abolish it, for goodness sakes, if religion was not deferred to, we would not be activists, we would not criticize it or talk about it as religious beliefs taken as true are mind-numbingly boring!

        Recognizing that religious believers exist and that they regard their beliefs as cherished is not the same thing as framing/accommodation which is just allowing them to continue to fester in their deferred-to sheltered niches. I support Mel Brooks/Carl Reiners’ psychiatrist: Little girl, do not tear paper. Religious people, keep your religion private as it is non-evidential.

        Accommodationists are probably those personalities that have a low tolerance for tension. MLK paradoxically had god belief to sustain him through the enormous tension that made his 39 yr body so much older biologically as he fought for Civil Rights.

        Accommodationists are somewhat craftier in a personal sense perhaps because tension does have its drawbacks. However, Jen’s approach is more effective in lowering as much tension as possible than jokey Plait’s approach can and still get the job done.

  15. After first reading the transcript of Phil’s DBAD speech, I thought it was the worst piece I had read, or heard from him. In both composition and content. Though I think Phil is a great asset for the skeptical community, and I enjoy reading his blog regularly, his level of communication, the persona he projects as a science communicator, is a little on the simple side. I have always assumed that this is intentional with the goal of being better understood by the widest audience possible. But this DBAD speech was really bad, almost juvenile in composition, and with piss poor argumentation to boot.

    Of particular dismay to me, which Jerry also pointed out, was Phil’s use of this common faithiest argument as one of the core points of his speech. (The following is from his “Don’t Be a Dick, Part 1: the video blog post.)

    Others took issue with my initial question, asking how many people were “converted” to skepticism by having a skeptic yelling at them and insulting them. In fact, at least one person said that method does work and worked on them. That’s good for them, but given what we know about the way people argue and change their views on issues, the vast majority of people will become further entrenched when confronted in that way.

    In other words, being a dick not only usually doesn’t work, it almost always works against the bigger goal of swaying the most people we can.(italic emphasis Phil’s, bold is mine)

    As Jerry points out, show me the evidence. And, what about secondary effects? What time frame are we talking about? It is really disappointing to see a supposed icon of skepticism placing such sure faith in a claim with nothing but “common sense” or “come on, everybody knows it is true” to back it up with. Especially when there are numerous examples throughout history that seem to support the opposite of what he claims, in the general case, and many examples to be found at certain blogs that also seem to support just the opposite, in the specific.

    I would also like to point out that his comments, in his second blog post about his DBAD speech, directed at a critque of his speech by a Matt D. at the blog Atheist Experience, make Phil look far worse than his speech did. He puts words in Matt D.’s mouth, he does not address any of his points, and he strawmans. A really poor showing by Phil.

    One thing that really cracks me up about this whole dust up. Skepticism is about dismantling woo. Theists get upset and cry dick quite frequently at the slighest criticism of their religious beliefs. This is common behavior for the average anonymous theist commentor on up to high end theologians. For example all of the numerous complaints about Dawkin’s rudeness, and even Dennet’s for fucks sake. But, don’t the theist skeptics see that they are being just as dickish to the proponents of other types of woo which they argue against, as they claim that atheists are to them?

    Obviously there are instances of flat out uncalled for, improper, unhelpful dickishness by atheists. But as numerous people have already asked, show me that this type of behavior is displayed frequently enough to be a real problem. I am skeptical about that.

    1. Phil seems to corral irrational faith into its very own corner, clearly marked:


      Why? Who can tell.
      It is especially puzzling when one considers the vast chronic genocidal harm that faiths inculcate.

    2. Theists get upset and cry dick quite frequently at the slighest criticism of their religious beliefs.

      Indeed, and if it weren’t for unapologetic people like PZ and Richard Dawkins, then Phil Plait would be the ones they call dicks. He would be the one saying they’re wrong for believing in literal creationism, and people would be complaining that he is being shrill and militant.

      Instead, he gets to play the good guy. The role of someone who’s simply interested in good solid science, and nothing more falls to people like him. It’s a useful job, but I guess it just isn’t enough.

  16. I’m always nonplussed at people who accuse Dawkins of being shrill or uncivil. I believe that is just hysterical overreaction to his ideas. In every Dawkins video or writing I’ve seen, he is unfailingly polite and urbane.

    1. The only two instances I can think of where Dawkins can be remotely thought of as uncivil are 1) his entirely justified “Get out!” when a creationist group tried to interview him under false pretenses and 2) his “Science is interesting, and if you don’t agree, you can fuck off,” when he was quoting someone else.

  17. What is Phil Plait’s goal? Is he trying to get the rude, nasty atheists to stop insulting their opponents? Obviously the way to do this is to call them dicks.

    1. Yes, the them of his speech does seem to be more than a bit of own goal. If being mean to people and calling them names won’t change their minds then if he actually believed his own thesis he should be attacking himself and saying how unhelpful he is being by calling certain people (not by name) “dicks”.

  18. Phil Plait’s speech is really unacceptable. Not only does he not provide evidence, but he does not consider the various options and situations in which those options are not only viable but necessary.

    Talking in a mealy-mouthed accommodationist way to a religious believer will get you nowhere. Phil wants to change minds. Well, he won’t, if he pretends that religion and science are compatible. We are hard-wired, he says, to resist scepticism, and so perhaps we are, but if we are, then we need something to shock us out of our complacency. Nothing else is liable to work.

    Notice, when he asked whether anyone ever changed their minds because they were insulted, a few, hesitant hands were put up. And then he discounted them as not being serious. Well, if resistance to scepticism is hard-wired, then the likelihood is that it took something to shock most people out of belief. And I suspect that, given the tone of Plait’s speech, very few were willing to acknowledge that they were shocked out of belief, although chances are they were. That’s why there was hesitation, and it was justified, because immediately Plait insulted them anyway.

    Plait gave an example of a conservative Christian whose creationist views he didn’t abuse. Well, of course. Anyone would have done that, even those who find abuse appropriate in other circumstances. And that’s why he needed to give evidence, and to show that forthright speech was inappropriate in the examples he chose. Not having done this, he’s guilty of the same kind of abuse that he accuses others of, because the generalises about people and refuses to give examples, claiming, iin a knowing tone, that of course everyone is familiar with the offences he’s talking about.

    This is not, however, warm and fuzzy speech. It’s really very offensive speech posing as warm and fuzzy. It’s like those Christians who tell gay people that they love them, but hate their sin, and you can just feel the personal hatred and repulsion oozing out of every pore.

    No, Phil Plait is being a dick, and pretending not to be. He should know better, but the gloves are off now, because no one seems to be able to recognise true abuse when he hears it, or to know when abuse is really warranted, as sometimes it is. Being a dick is being unable to tell the difference.

    1. Excellent grasp of the psychological dynamics, and why Plait’s stance is not ‘reasonable.’ Plait’s approach just adds to the reality of how much deferential respect is given on demand for religious beliefs as Plait himself is part of the problem. He makes excuses for religion via framing but never would do not for astrology. Why is that, Phil?

      Maybe Phil thinks his dick is really a telescope (per the calendar shot? And he is really only being telescopic?

  19. You know, we’re used to religious people telling us that not only are we going to be tortured forever because of our unbelief in Jebus or Islam, but that we deserve it. We’ve heard it so often that we seldom notice it.

    What could possibly be half as dickish as the usual believing Christian’s or Muslim’s condemnation of those who don’t share their religious beliefs?

    1. You mean like in “Kill them all. God will recognize his own” (while slaughtering the mixed Cathar and Catholic residents of Beziers).

      Yep, them religionistas sure are guilty of excessive civility, aren’t they.

  20. I’m looking forward to reading Phil’s new posts on accommodating the positions of moon hoaxers and anti-vaxxers. Also, no doubt he’ll be changing the name of his blog from Bad Astronomy, since it’s kind of dickish to tell people their views of astronomy are bad.

  21. Ditto to everything that Jerry said in this post. And I’m going to go ahead and be a strident shrill militant new atheist dick here and say that I thought Plait’s speech was fucking ridiculous.

      1. Ah, yes! I had forgotten: after a morning spent yelling “you are brain-damaged baby raping morons!” at old ladies leaving church, we all met in our underground bunker (which we call “Dick”) and decided to switch from “New” to “Gnu”.


    1. a) “Ditto to everything that Jerry said”
      b) “Plait’s speech was fucking ridiculous”

      You either haven’t read Jerry’s entire post, or you haven’t experienced Phil’s speech.
      While Jerry has some justified (IMHO) criticism, he clearly does NOT think the whole speech was fucking ridiculous.
      In fact, Jerry said things like:
      “Plait does have a point” and
      “Plait is a terrific advocate of science and a great public speaker. His speech was all warm and fuzzy—who could object to it?—”

      So you agree with that AND think the speech was fucking ridiculous?

      Girl, I think you’re just trying to be a dick. A dense one at that.
      And you succeeded.

        1. “Did I say that Jerry thought ..” etc.
          No, nor did ~I~ say you said that. Let alone that I put words in your mouth. I wouldn’t dare!
          I just found your observation quite a bit less well argued than Jerry’s post, and not at all in total and complete agreement with Jerry’s remarks, despite your claim to that effect.

          And while I can see that people don’t agree with all Plait’s ideas on the issue, calling the entire speech ‘fucking ridiculous’ suggests you haven’t seen much ‘fucking ridiculous’ in your life yet.

          1. What are you on about? Seriously. . .I literally don’t understand what’s got you so het up about Miranda’s opinion on this speech. Why are you so excessively bothered by the “level of ridiculous” she sees in it that you feel compelled to comment on it?

            1. What mildly bothered me was the excessive ‘black-and-white’-ing of Jerry’s so well analyzed and argued post, by simply shrugging the whole thing off as ‘fucking ridiculous’. She has a right to that opinion, just as I have a right to consider that a ‘dickish’ and not very helpful characterization of the issue, no matter how ironic that may be. As for feeling compelled to comment: I’m sure it’s not much more intense than YOUR urge to do the same: speaking of irony here! 😉

        1. Of course! I thought it was so obvious it didn’t need pointing out. Guess I was wrong.
          And Irony is my middle name.

    2. One doesn’t have to be an atheist, gnu or otherwise (and I’m not), to be at least very uncomfortable with Phil Plait’s lately stated general preaching of how-to for skeptics, with the generalizations, and vaguenesses, and a little negative emotionalism thrown in there…

  22. I think Phil may be confusing the criticisms often aimed at skeptics by nonskeptics in various forums and other places where discourse takes place. The vitriol leveled ar Richard Dawkins being a case in point.

  23. I don’t think that Plait was addressing the “known New Atheists” (e. g., Jerry, Richard, PZ) but rather the “rank in file” who tend to get in arguments on blogs and on facebook.

    I know that I used to lose my temper frequently and have called people names; now-a-days I solve the problem by avoiding talking to the “believers”.

    So I see his talk aimed at people like me: saying “ok, why do you believe this; where is your evidence” opens the door more than saying “oh my goodness, that belief is moronic”.

    1. Well, the problem is that Phil refuses to say who he’s criticizing, and he refuses to give examples of “dickish” behavior. I do not think he deserves the benefit of the doubt since he’s been disingenuous.

      And the whole “she came up to me after crying” thing is pathetic and contemptible.

      1. I agree that Plait should have been clear as to who he was talking about, and I agree with your assessment of “she came up to me after crying” stuff.

        1. ps: I should point out that my own family told me that I ought to look to Richard Dawkins as an example on how to make a point without being strident! (i. e., they like his tone but find my tone to be too hostile)

      2. I’d say pathetic and contemptible only if it weren’t true (Elmer Gantry anyone?). I’d say (in the absence of first hand evidence) that it’s probably true – after all, I’ve found it trivial to make up a story that inspires the religious and moves them to tears. The story only has to evoke memories which the victim takes as being very similar to their own experiences. Well, it’s far more complex than that (which in fact makes it really easy to make up these stories). Maybe I should stop being a poor starving scientist and be a preacher instead … then again I never could stand bullshit.

        1. To clarify, I think that Phil’s use of this story is what’s pathetic and contemptible. It’s cheap emotional blackmail.

          While I have no wish to ridicule someone who feels upset enough to cry, it is, frankly, not my problem or anyone else’s.

    1. Stars? I was thinking more of navels – well, so long as you’re not Adam of course – everyone knows he didn’t have a bellybutton – it’s an established fact, just as Frosty the Snowman had a button nose and two eyes made out of coals.

  24. Jerry’s post here is spot-on.

    If it were that frequent, Tom Johnson wouldn’t have had to make up stories!

    Precisely—and Plait wouldn’t be so evasive when it comes to talking about this “problem” in concrete terms. When he says it’s “trivially easy” to find examples, he likely means that anyone can go on just about any skeptic comment thread and find someone using naughty language (I’m sure I’ve called Kirk Cameron a “fucking idiot” dozens of times). Big deal.

    If Phil had specific people or instances in mind, he should have said so. Then we could at least have an honest, grounded debate. It occurs to me that the difference between Phil and someone like P.Z. is that when P.Z. thinks someone’s actions/arguments are harmful or silly, he isn’t afraid to actually call out that person (like he’s doing now with Kurzweil). That doesn’t make P.Z. a jerk. Rather, it demonstrates that he’s actually interested in having an honest exchange. I think Plait just likes coming off as Mr. Magnanimous; he doesn’t actually want to have a discourse about the substance of his critique—that much is clear.

    1. That’s why I posted a comment at Phil Plait’s blog proposing a different false dichotomy informal poll: who’d you rather debate with, an honest dick, or a polite liar?

  25. Two points. First, Plait’s opening question was ludicrously loaded, biased to produce the answer that would gladden his accommodationist heart. “How many of you changed your mind because a skeptic screamed in your face . . . and called you an idiot and a retard?” Well, obviously, if you put it like that there is only one possible answer. But suppose he had said, “How many of you changed your mind because you saw your beliefs being devastatingly mocked, ridiculed, surgically taken apart with razor-sharp wit . . . ?”

    As Jerry said, Plait quoted no examples of skeptics who scream insults in people’s face. I don’t think I have ever met, seen or heard one. But I could quote plenty of skeptics who employ ridicule, who skewer pretentiousness, stupidity and ignorance using wit. Listening to such ridicule, and reading it, is one of the great joys life has to offer. And I suspect that it is very effective.

    My second point is that Plait naively presumed, throughout his lecture, that the person we are ridiculing is the one we are trying to convert. Speaking for myself, it is often a third party (or a large number of third parties) who are listening in, or reading along. When Peter Medawar destroyed Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, in the most devastatingly barbed book review I have ever read, he wasn’t trying to convert Teilhard. Teilhard was already dead in any case. Medawar was trying (and succeeding, in spades)to convert the large number of gullible fools who had been taken in by Teilhard.

    Similarly, when I employ ridicule against the arguments of a young earth creationist, I am almost never trying to convert the YEC himself. That is probably a waste of time. I am trying to influence all the third parties listening in, or reading my books. I am amazed at Plait’s naivety in overlooking that and treating it as obvious that our goal is to convert the target of our ridicule. Ridicule may indeed annoy the target and cause him to dig his toes in. But our goal might very well be (in my case usually is) to influence third parties, sitting on the fence, or just not very well-informed about the issues. And to achieve that goal, ridicule can be very effective indeed.

    At the end of his talk, Plait pats himself on the back for his patient rebuttal of the ridiculous arguments of a young woman creationist. He congratulates himself that after a long conversation she was laughing. Whether she changed her mind, we are not told. But he evidently wasted a lot of time ‘respecting’ the regurgitated idiocies of one creationist enough to answer them, patiently, one by one. Mightn’t that time have been better employed in answering more intelligent questions from other members of the audience?

    Richard Dawkins

    1. “How many of you changed your mind because a skeptic screamed in your face . . . and called you an idiot and a retard?” Well, obviously, if you put it like that there is only one possible answer

      And yet, several people kept their hands raised even at the second question. Phil Plait just assumed they must have been joking – which seemed kind of dickish to me.

    2. Dr. Dawkins: you know that my family says that I am too strident and point toward YOU as being an example as to how to make points in an agreeable manner? 🙂

      1. Another side-effect of “dickish” behaviour! When Richard wrote TGD and made some of his tv specials, he was roundly attacked for being insulting. Now, thanks to Hitchens, PZ and other outspoken atheists the centre has been shifted and people can see Richard for the sympathetic, reasonable person that he is.

        What a change from five years ago!

        1. Overton window, move over!

          [And that is another piece of evidence that stridency, in various forms, work.]

    3. But suppose he had said, “How many of you changed your mind because you saw your beliefs being devastatingly mocked, ridiculed, surgically taken apart with razor-sharp wit . . . ?”

      I have, for one.

      At least it provoked me to consider that I may be (badly) wrong, check both sides and ultimately abandon my initial belief.

      It may not be the only tool we should use, it may not even be the best one, but it’s solid and effective and when it’s appropriate I think it’s great to keep it sharpened and ready for battle.

    4. Professor Dawkins is far too strident for me. Now I’ll have to un-read all his books and un-learn as much about evolution as I can. Plus, I’m re-joining my church, as his stridency has pushed me back into an embrace of whichever religion is nearby.

      Seriously, I wish we all could keep our cool as well you do under pressure or that we could present the case of reason half as well. Please keep writing, speaking and making documentaries.

    5. I am opposed the whole idea that atheists should try to “win others to (our) cause.” Proselytizing is what religions do. Our job is to state the facts, one of which is that religionists are infected with a mind virus that demands that they believe something ridiculous that is against all logic and evidence. Worse, they are required to spread this virus. Our job is not to win others to a cause, but to stop them from spreading the virus.

      If those infected take offense, so be it.

      1. I myself consider it a victory when someone decides not to believe in religious propaganda, so by my definition, that would be a win.

      2. Why should we NOT try to change peoples minds? What is the purpose of pointing out that religions Proselytize?

        We can issue preventative vaccines but not treat the infected?

        Show some compassion.

        1. I think you misunderstood my reference to virus (I said mind virus). Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for mind viruses.

          1. I think critical thinking is a vaccine for mind viruses… and letting the kids know that faith and feelings are not ways to know anything true as Dawkins’ did in his letter to his daughter, Julia.

            Once the kids believe that there’s a magical man in the sky that mustn’t be questioned, they are vulnerable to anyone who can convince them that they speak for him. This is especially true if they are told that there is a hell they can go to if they don’t believe the right thing with the right fervor.

            Like you, I don’t feel it’s my personal responsibility to deprogram the indoctrinated, but I hope I can plant a few seeds of doubt because I’m sure glad those seeds of doubt were planted in me. Religion caused me a great deal of angst, and I am concerned about what it does to childrens’ minds.

            1. Education is somewhat imperfect–witness educated people who believe, like Collins.

              That said, we are agreed–our job is to stop the spread. I personally am not going to compete with religionists going from door to door and being all warm and fuzzy in order to convert people to atheism. For one thing, I think it would be a futile endeavor. I will, however, fight to have evolution taught in schools and not religious beliefs like intelligent design.

      3. “Winning others to the cause” would be analogous to curing an infected individual who would be capable of further spreading the virus. It complements the effort of prevention that is achieved through education.

      4. I disagree. Though it is not our religion that urges us to proselytize, we have a certain responsibility and incentive to do so.

        I would love to live in a world with more realism, more rational thought, and less moral judging taking place.

        I would like religion out of politics.

        I think I would feel even more strongly if I fell into a group that is ostracized by religions, like the gays, the promiscuous, the divorced, or the… atheists.

        The environment suffers, as religious people often feel that the earth is here to serve us, and what does it matter anyways if we use it up, since there is still the after life. Armageddon is gonna wipe out the planet anyway, right?

        We can only get a freakin President who either is religious, or has spent his life pretending to be so. The faithful demand to be led by their peers.

        Need stem cell research to save your life? Tough, the religious won’t have it. Need an abortion? Tough, zealots want to decide for you.

        Would you like your kids to get factual sexual education? Nope, that makes christians uncomfortable. Let’s teach failed policies of abstinence instead, and deny that we’re a human animal.

        While we’re at it, let’s talk about a nation that has many school boards co-opted to take science out of the curriculum, and intelligent design and a young earth taught. And let’s look at the influential Texas School Board, and their recent significant changes to textbooks and curriculae that will ripple across the country. These christians are more than happy to pervert logical thining, and foist their nonsense on you and your kin. And while atheism is growing in other developed nations, in ours, the bible belt is growing.

        This “virus” that infects people’s brains, it is harmful to them, and so also to us. They make irrational decisions based on it. And they make decisions FOR US.

        Religion harms the religious, and religion harms me. Being passive about it is not socially responsible or personally beneficial.

        No, fudge religion. And fudge “to each their own.” People are free to make their own choices, but if you think religion is a scourge on the planet, as I think, then we should at least try to cure the disease.

        Somewhere, there is a balance between arguing for reason and being pushy and rude. Unlike many zealots, I’ll find that equilibrium.

    6. While I haven’t converted anyone (that I know of), one of my friends is strongly fundamentalist Christian, and as he knows that I’m an atheist, we occasionally get into religious discussions.

      The only time I feel I’ve ever made significant progress was last week, when I attempted to frame the core of Christianity- that being the Resurrection of Jesus- in the most ridiculous manner I possibly could.

      “First God created man, knowing beforehand that man would sin and be condemned for it?”
      “So then God decided that he didn’t really want to condemn man for sinning, so the way in which he chose to remove the condemnation was by conceiving a son with a mortal woman who was not only the son of God, but God as well, and then have his son executed in a blood sacrifice of himself, to himself; in order to create a loophole in a law that he’d made in the first place?”
      “You know, I’ve never thought about it quite like that.”

      Well, I got him thinking about just how illogical it is.

      1. And at no point did you actively mock the person or call them an idiot. Disagreeing with someone is not being a dick, and framing their arguments in a new way is not being a dick.

        The specific complaints were about calling people names and belittling them personally, which is activity that can easily be found–mostly on comment threads and in forums.

        1. But I was using ridicule, and actually saw favorable results from its use, while before now I had made an effort to avoid using ridicule and seen no positive results (for example, pointing out the scientific flaws in creationist arguments simply resulted in a goddidit).

        2. I’ve found in having many discussions with many theists online that ridiculing or diminishing their beliefs was taken as a personal attack on them, because, as I had it explained to me, if someone believes in something and you mock it then you’re mocking them.

          That said, however, I try to stick to arguments and only ever resort to personal mocking when it’s clear that it has become an exercise in futility. When you try to explain something to someone in many different ways and being met with the same mock dismissal, then there’s little else to do.

        3. @Seth: And therein lies the problem with Plait’s lack of specificity. I am beginning to think he might have had a point — there are examples of clearly counter-productive dickish behavior that can be cited. These are generally your typical internet trolls, who just happen to be taking the skeptic/atheist side.

          But when Plait is non-specific like that, it let’s people imagine that he’s talking about big name “strident” atheist bloggers — in which case the criticism is absurd.

          I’m not sure what Plait meant. I might agree with him, I might not. heh…

          1. Do you imagine he would devote a keynote speech and three blog posts to internet trolls? I have a hard time imagining he could be so silly – that’s a matter for a brief note on comment moderation and then silence.

            My problem is that if he isn’t wasting everyone’s time talking about trolls then just who the hell *IS* he talking about?

          2. I thought Phil was actually talking about people physically present at skeptics’ meetings, who made religious people feel unwelcome at skeptics’ meetings.
            Not rhetorical style in books or internet posts.

    7. I have, twice. And I won’t even discuss the wrong-side-of-the-fence positions I endorsed. It’s simply too embarrassing to ever have been sucked in to those positions to come clean on the Internet. Though I have come clean with family members on the issues.

      The irony is that when audience members there raised their hands in acknowledgment to that very situation, my understanding is that Phil contemptuously denied their experiences. That is, his preconceived narrative and conclusion could not have room for positions that did not confirm his bias.

    8. If the object is to change someone’s opinion then it helps to be sensitive as to what might actually work. Being a dick is being more concerned with winning arguments than winning minds, and it doesn’t have to be the opponent whose mind is the objective. Sometimes in a debate with an intransigent opponent some level of mockery or sarcasm can be effective in persuading the audience, but if this is overdone and you come off as being a dick, then audience members who might have been persuaded will have an emotional reaction against your manner which can cause them to reject a position that they might otherwise have accepted.

      1. So, do you think Phil’s sensitivity to god believers will make them more likely to question faith as a means of knowledge?

        Should he be equally as accommodating to belief in other invisible entities– such as belief in demons or Thetans?

        I actually KNOW how to change minds– promise people eternal salvation for what they believer and threaten them with hell for not having faith. Religion taught me that.

    9. It was the writing of Mark Twain, Betrand Russell, and James Randi that convinced me that my formerly devout religious beliefs were mistaken. By any reasonable measure, Russell’s and Randi’s critiques were every bit as aggressive as Dawkins, while Twain was more aggressive – especially with respect to Mormonism, the beliefs I held when I first encountered Twain’s critiques of religion.
      Although I agree that Dawkins-style rhetoric is far more likely to be effective on observers (note: on the internet, observers, especially those who are looking primarily for entertainment, vastly outnumber participants), I was not by any means a mere observer; I was quite emotionally invested in my beliefs. Moreover, although LDS prophets had made statements about Mormonism being officially compatible with evolution and an old Earth, these remarks were quite weak, and not given the prominence that YEC interpretations of Mormonism were until much later. As a result, every Mormon I knew favored the YEC interpretations until much later.

    10. Thank you, Richard. I’ve been saying this for years, as I was one of those third parties you helped to convert (along with your fellow Horsemen) by ridiculing creationism. Oh, and thanks for that, too. I am forever indebted to your wonderful, lovely “dickishness.”

  26. To sum up my analysis yet again of Plait’s argument in his posts, it is a slippery slope argument in the context of personal judgment. Criticism of subject isn’t criticism on person, but is often perceived thusly. There are no quick and easy qualitative distinctions on “dickishness”.

    Specifically the religious special pleading in this matter should not be encouraged.

    To compound the problem, despite the slippery slope, Plait use anecdote instead of data. Not encouraging for a skeptic.

    Obviously people here have made more poignant analyses, especially after listening on Plait’s apparently slanted, judgmental and sneering, not to say dickish, talk. I have to agree with MacDonald for instance, when he then finds the talk unacceptable.

    The author of this one says I don’t give specific examples, and therefore because he hasn’t seen the insults they don’t exist… and then accuses me of a strawman argument!

    I have not yet returned to the thread, so for all I know this could have been a response to me. I’m not sure if I called Plait’s argument a strawman, but I certainly complained about anecdote.

    However, Plait is wrong. It is the slippery slope argument that transforms into a strawman, because it is based on perception. Even if Plait sees insults they may not exist.

    [Famously in logic a contradiction allows you to deduce anything. I believe Plait ran up against that – perceptions can be “dick” and “no dick” simultaneously.]

    If it were that frequent, Tom Johnson wouldn’t have had to make up stories!

    Or more damaging, Mooney wouldn’t turn out to rely on falsehoods.

    1. “perceptions can be “dick” and “no dick” simultaneously” – a _populations_ perceptions can be “dick” and “no dick” simultaneously.

  27. There’s another fundamental problem for those who wish to avoid the Phil Phallacy.

    To a True Believer (TM), merely failing to agree with the True Belief (TM) constitutes being a dick.

    That is, one needn’t observe that the Lazarus incident (complete with the revivification of a putrid, rotting corpse), plus the Signs and Portents (complete with hordes of dead “saints” invading downtown Jerusalem to the “amazement” of the living inhabitants), plus the Resurrection itself (where nobody recognized the risen Jesus until he “revealed” himself to them), plus Doubting Thomas (who was invited to fondle Jesus’s intestines through a gaping hole in his side) all add up to one Hell of a fucking bizarre zombie story in order to be a dick.

    No, even somebody who sings Jesus’s high praises but suggests that perhaps the Resurrection had natural instead of supernatural causes is a first-order dick in the eyes of a True Believer (TM).

    Besides, when somebody comes to you insisting that you should cannibalize an ancient fictional zombie in order to become an immortal zombie yourself, which is more dickish: to make nice in a way that avoids mention of zombies, or to honestly tell the person that zombie fantasies, while fine as part of make-believe, are decidedly childish and unhealthy when believed in literally?

    We are all dicks, whether or not we want to be. It’s far better to acknowledge the fact than to try to pretend otherwise.



    1. That reminds me of when I was a kid, there was this dick named Martin Luther who didn’t believe in the Virgin Mary – he’s rotting in hell now of course, and the catholics killed off a lot of his satanically inspired followers.

  28. One point that has been glossed over in the DBAD debate on the page is that sometimes, possibly many times, it is impossible not to be a dick in the opinion of the person you are trying to convince. Just challenging their cosy beliefs is being a dick. No matter how nicely or civily you phrase your argument. DBAD seems to be more an image concern, rather than a coherent argument on strategy to convince people to give up fuzzy thinking.

    1. Exactly, that is the “slippery slope in this context” fallacy & practical problem I see.

      You reminded me that I also said that New Accommodationism is a message on how to present an issue, while New Atheism is a message on an issue.

      Recently there was some press release on research into how arguments come over. [Dunno how good though.] IIRC, apparently experiments says that a strong message does better by being present first and the messenger’s own details later. A weak message would do better by a presentation of self first.

      If it is true that framing is tested, or at least is a sometimes heuristic, it implicitly tell us that it brings a weak and confused message (!) on accommodationism, and what we do we do because we have found our message to be strong and coherent!

      1. Well you know, amongst the good advice given to aspiring politicians (and if you want to see true “dickness”, politicians are the best examples) was – apart from the classic “Never complain and never explain” – guidance for presenting your case:

        Recognise that you are dealing with three main groups:

        1. Supporters and other ‘true believers’, in which case you should simply, clearly and unambiguously reinforce your shared beliefs (don’t bother ‘refudiating’ your opponents, your supporters don’t need it).

        2. Those who haven’t quite made up their minds, in which case you should clearly and fairly present “both sides”, though concluding strongly in favour of your own – because the undecided want to try to be ‘fair’.

        3. Opponents (whether rabid or reasonable), in which case it doesn’t matter what you say or how you say it, because they aren’t listening to you anyway.

        All of which is neat ahd helpful, unless, that is, you are presenting to a ‘mixed audience’ comprising some of all of the above. How do you present then ?

        Unless you can “dick” your opponents when they try to “dick” you, it might be wrongfully concluded that you don’t really believe what you’re presenting.

        Or it might be concluded that you’re just a strident rear-end. Sometimes, you just can’t win.

    2. “it is impossible not to be a dick in the opinion of the person you are trying to convince. ”

      It can be worse than that: sometimes it is impossible to not “be a dick” when you tell the person you aren’t interested in discussion!
      Example: I was called all sorts of names for telling a creationist “tell you what: I’ll stick with mainstream science that has delivered things like medicines, vaccines, etc. and let you stick with creation science and all of the results it has produced.”

      THAT response was deemed as angry, hostile and arrogant! 🙂

      1. Yup, been there. An ex-housemate of mine found religion one summer in university, and was incensed when the rest of us in the house refused to make time for his bible studies teacher to speak to us when he came around one evening. Irrespective of the fact that 1. all three of us had heavy course loads 2. I had to head out for training and 3. one of us was Hindu. The fact that his teacher wanted to talk to us should have been reason enough for us to drop everything in his mind, and by not doing so we were being dicks.

  29. Trivially easy, yet no examples and many people don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. Huh. I wonder if he’s been hanging around Nisbet/Mooney too much. It’s not very science-y at all is it? “I make Claim A, and it is so obvious and easy to find evidence for it that I will not provide evidence for it.” That’s so reminiscent of quackery. As far as I can tell, the phalluses are a minority. There are a few people who bore me by hounding deists as if it is such an important thing to convince a deist that there is no god at all when the deists have a god which doesn’t matter. I guess maybe the same people would tease others about their belief in Ceilingcat and that continued belief in Ceilingcat attracts more ridicule – some people just have such a hard time dumping superstition. I usually reserve the ridicule for anyone so pompous as to preach to me. It is vital that we keep Ceilingcat out of the public schools but it would be ridiculous to believe that Ceilingcat is actually acceptable everywhere else, so I happily cheer on the folks who say there is no Ceilingcat. The funny thing is, the vast majority of them are not phalluses.

    1. Who hounds deists? I always wonder why deists or theists think others should know or care about their beliefs in the skeptical community. I think it might be to show kinship with other believers– but is a skeptics convention a place where we are supposed to tiptoe around in case someone might believe in some woo the majority doesn’t?

      I have to tiptoe around not to accidentally offend theists in my regular life. I’d like the presumption that I can be as free in my speech skeptics convention as theists are in real life.

      I wish someone would give a link to a video or a cut and paste quote where someone is “being a dick” to a deist. Is this really a problem… or are biases affecting peoples’ memories of what people actually said? What is the worst thing some “militant atheist” has said to a deist?

      I remember Hal (TAM emcee) getting all upset about people bothering him for being a deist… but he never gave evidence either. I’ve only seen people bend over backwards to make believers comfortable– nothing dickish.

      Are they really upset because people don’t “respect” their beliefs the way they think they should be respected? Or maybe because people ask questions about how one can be a skeptic and believe in the supernatural? Or maybe someone just asks for details about what exactly the deist skeptic believes?

    2. Is this the New Skepticism? You don’t need examples and evidence, so long as you truly believe your cause is just.

    3. Besides that it is the Plait Phallacy all over again [thanks, Goren!], no one gave the deists a “out of jail card”. That any form of supernaturalism would be immune to empiricism is unfounded belief.

      I can’t begin to guess at the cognitive dissonance that thinks theological assertions have any bearing on what comes out of actual investigation, more so to accept belief on belief.

      It is both Belief 2.0 and Belief^2, IMO. And it will never converge to anything real.

      1. The analysis can go like this:

        Theism proposes that materialism can’t predict everything, and that itself is the better explanation. Deism (the ideally rarefied variant) proposes that materialism can predict everything, and that itself is the better explanation.

        First, note that they are both wrong as empiricism.

        Second, deism is precisely like asking “how did everything come from nothing”, it doesn’t even make sense to leave the distribution of what is actually observed. Theism is the more sane proposal in that regard.

        So how deism can be thought of as “immune” against empiricism, when it has grave empirical connotations, doesn’t make much sense. It is at least as inconsistent as theism in the context.

  30. So, was telling people not to be a dick effective at getting people not to be dicks?

    Phil admonishes others to think about their goal. What was his goal in this speech and did calling a nebulous group of people “dicks” achieve this goal?

    I’ve been following this DBAD brouhaha and I had the same reaction as Jerry did. There’s been increasing pressure at TAM to tamp down the vocal atheists because of the supernatural beliefs of prominent skeptics; this means there is a clear message that you aren’t supposed to treat religious woo like you treat other woo and if you do, you’re “being a dick”. Phil clearly has no problem being a dick to those who think the moon landing is a hoax. Like Mooney, he’s trying to woo the moderate believers by sharing a common enemy of those who don’t respect faith.

    Again, there are never examples. (I have been to 7 TAMS, and though I’ve witnessed hurt feelings, I’ve never witnessed anything I’d call dickish.) I think that any criticism of religion comes off dickish to those who have come to believe in the “unmentionable cabal of militant atheists” who are everywhere forcing people to confront their sacred beliefs. It’s easier to see the messenger as dicksish than it is to examine one’s the likely truth of one’s deeply held beliefs.

    Phil is guilty of using a straw man to promote a prejudice, and confirming his own biases in the process– the same as Mooney. I know that Phil is no Mooney, but this speech made me feel the same way that the whole Tom Johnson affair did. Somehow, I doubt he’s more affective at getting “theist skeptics” to be more skeptical than those he thinks of as dicks are. Pam and Kitty may have cried… but did they lessen their supernatural beliefs? Or did they just feel more justified in holding them and more angry at those who cause cognitive dissonance? Are they really going to get more religious if they think some skeptics are being dicks? I think they’ll just feel more like martyrs for faith.

    Because Phil never gave examples, it allowed others to speculate and conclude that the people THEY thought were dicks were the people Phil was talking about. This is divisive and it doesn’t make skeptics more inclusive– it just brings in more faitheists while pushing out those who find faith a dangerous notion to defer to.

    Apparently, Dawkins and PZ were the two primary people who came to mind when people heard the speech. But I think Dawkins and PZ have done far more to spread rational thought than all those who think they are dicks put together.

    1. Interesting point about TAM trying to carve exceptions to placate religious skeptics. While it is true that not everybody is consistently skeptical, we can’t keep skepticism going by giving extra “respect” to select forms of nonsense.

      “Because Phil never gave examples, it allowed others to speculate and conclude that the people THEY thought were dicks were the people Phil was talking about. “

      To a certain extent Plait is doing accomidationist Cold Reading, “I sense a skeptic being Dickish. Does that mean something to you? Do you understand that? Yes, because my thesis is telling me that Skeptics are dickish. Keep that.”

      1. Cold reading

        Wow, but that is exactly right! I kept picking on why the idea irritated me, even if I try to take criticism on the subject with or without Plait.

        So now I know.

    2. There’s been increasing pressure at TAM to tamp down the vocal atheists because of the supernatural beliefs of prominent skeptics;

      Ah. That can certainly be a factor, especially when seen in the N&M frame.

      Being a skeptic (or scientist!) is certainly not a bullet proof vest against being taken in by unsubstantiated claims. We have all seen that in people like Mooney, who writes about science in politics and has a scientist co-blogger, Penn & Teller missteps, and now Plait.

      Plait’s predecessor the Amazing Randi recently denied AGW on skeptical grounds, and, worse, based his skepticism in the GW denialist bullshit “Petition Project”.

      So I can see how they have a problem even when Randi et al points out that scientific skeptics would do well to be not only less gullible but also base their skepticism on scientific grounds.

      What scientific and non-gullible grounds, pray tell, do supernatural belief stand on? You can no less be a consistent scientific skeptic and accept religious methods (dogma) than you can be a scientist and do the same.

      Maybe we will see a BioSkeptic organization soon. “Skepticism, therefore gods!”

  31. Here is a comment from Ted Davis professor at Messiah College and former head of the ASA. You don’t even have to raise your voice – just teach something they don’t like.

    “The problem with evolution in public schools, Albert, is that public education from the beginning was supposed to avoid teaching controversial topics (such as Christianity), and evolution is surely a controversial topic. For many people, evolution is not religiously neutral, and thus by teaching evolution public schools are violating religious neutrality. The point here isn’t whether you or I think that evolution is irreligion; the point is that many Americans do think so, and that their basic constitutional rights are being violated when their children are forced to learn about that. Public education is essentially a monopoly, since parents can’t use their own tax dollars anywhere else. Yet those same parents don’t have much to say about it when their children are taught things that assault their religious views. There’s the rub.
    Show me a way out of that box, and I’ll show you a different way of viewing both the First Amendment (as currently interpreted) and public education. We need that box, IMO, but at the same time I don’t think I’ll live to see it.”

    BeliefNet Science and the Sacred August 2009

    1. was supposed to avoid teaching controversial topics

      He failed already. Public education is supposed to EDUCATE children to the FACTS in an age-appropriate way.

    2. Ah, that’s the John Webster thesis: Because “for many people, evolution is not religiously neutral,” a commitment to secular education actually requires that teachers be allowed to provide alternative accounts for biological diversity. The claim that parents should somehow be able to decide what scientific facts are acceptable is bizarre, but sadly popular. By the way, BioLogos identifies Davis as current ASA president.

      1. Yeah. I’ve heard that argument. It’s one of the dumber ones, yet people fall for it.

        The bottom line is you can teach ANY method of biological diversity. As long as you’ve got the science to show you’re right.

        Theory of evolution — has the science. Tectonic theory — has the science. Heliocentric solar system — has the science.

        You don’t like it, figure out the “right” way, publish and convince people based on your theory, facts and interpretations while showing the prior model is insufficient. Until them, shut up.

    1. I think the “New Professionalism” thin has been around for years. Radley Balko at least has been publishing regular updates about the police with this sarcastic jab, referring back to a comment from Scalia who said (AFAIR) that we don’t need police oversight or accountability because all the corruption is gone and there’s a new spirit of professionalism. I don’t think it’s a reference to the New Atheists, though I could be wrong.

  32. “How many of you changed your mind because you saw your beliefs being devastatingly mocked, ridiculed, surgically taken apart with razor-sharp wit . . . ?”

    I’ve had that happen a time or two. In my desire to “prove myself fucking correct” I found I was “more than fucking wrong.” 🙂

    But I’m always adult enough to admit it. It may be embarrassing. But I admit it because I’d rather be correct than “right.”

    Phil doesn’t seem to be that kind. At least as far as I can see from his “Just So” stories and twisting every which way to avoid the fact he’s peddling myth not reality. Especially in light of what the religious side clearly says about, and does to, Athiests. Which makes the whole “Tom Johnson” wing of the Accommodationist so fucking unbearable.

    Athiests are the most despised group in America — behind blacks, Jews, Nazis and gays. In a poll of American voters, in 1999, these were the NO voters who were saying they would refuse to vote for “a generally well-qualified person for president” on the basis of some characteristic; in parenthesis are the figures for earlier years:

    Catholic: 4% (1937: 30%)
    Black: 5% (1958: 63%, 1987: 21%)
    Jewish: 6% (1937: 47%)
    Baptist: 6%
    Woman: 8%
    Mormon: 17%
    Muslim: 38%
    Gay: 37% (1978: 74%)
    Atheist: 48%

    Forty-eight percent of Americans would not vote for a qualified candidate if he (or she) were an atheist. Even gays and Muslims do better.

    And don’t even get me started on child custody battles. Atheists get wiped-out there. Sometimes losing even their visitation rights solely because they are Athiests.

  33. As I approached her, to my distress, I saw she had been crying. Concerned, I rapidly went to her, and over the next few minutes, between sobs, she told me how much my talk meant to her. She is religious, in a rather generic way (you could call her a deist, someone who believes in a non-specific god) and over the years has received quite a bit of ostracism from the community. This, despite her long and strong support for speaking up against psychics, ghost hunters, UFO believers, alt-meddlers, and the rest.

    First: Crying? He “went to her”? Is this a joke?

    Second: So she’s not being a dick (or promoting dickishness)? How very…double standard.

    Third: Where are all of these deists? I’ve been discussing these issues online for a few years now, and I don’t think I’ve yet come across an actual deist. There are plenty of people shouting “Leave deists alone!” and “You can’t reject deism!”* but I don’t know that anyone, in any of these conversations, has ever said she’s a deist and described precisely what is meant by this for her (and what she does not believe; I’m suspicious of this “non-specific god” business). Ken Miller is a Catholic. Collins is an evangelical. heddle is a Chicago-Statement Baptist…. Why does deism come up so frequently? I’m quite skeptical of people in anecdotes being described as deists at this point.

    *Even “I reject deism, too, but for reasons so sophisticated you wouldn’t understand.”

    1. Where are all of these deists?

      I guess they’re in the corner crying… maybe because your internet talk is making them feel “ostracized”…?

      (I like Kitty a lot– I doubt anyone has actually ostracized her. Hurt feelings do not equal “ostracizing”.)

      1. In fact, I think Kitty is one of the people responsible for making many people at TAM feel like they mustn’t treat religious woo the same way Kitty and other skeptics treat other woo.

    2. There are deists all over the place. There must be. Haven’t you ever noticed that every argument for existence of god is for a god of a non-specific variety? 🙂

      1. I used to do a post about the evolving God of Christianity. How he started as the head of a polytheistic pantheon living on top of a nearby mountain. Don’t do that much anymore because there hasn’t been much of that war going on in places I read.

        I did get to do a piece about God, Inc. Sort of a business model mockery. God started as some staffer in an IPO religion and lived on some low-rent mountain top. As he moved up the corporate ladder vanquishing his competitors, he moved to “better” neighborhoods — The clouds, the heavens and now he’s really gone high-tech and lives in the quantum space inside atoms…

        Unfortunately, like all quasi-monopolies, his customers service has gone for shit. No more miracles. No lightning bolts. No curing diseases or feeding the multitudes…

        Just a lousy operating manual, like a demented VCR, and an endless loop in call waiting.

        Kind of like the phone company…

    3. First: Crying? He “went to her”? Is this a joke?

      Yeah. This just keeps getting worse the more he tries to explain it. That third post of his is really pathetic. Harlequin Romance pathetic.

      Juvenile “night in shining armor coming to your emotional rescue” fantasy role playing.

      Nothing wrong with that I guess. Unless you are expecting people to take you seriously.

      1. Or Twilight? Does Phil sparkle?

        It seems to me that the argument is emotion over facts. I have gotten my feelings hurt a lot…but I got over it. I will be a dick and say “Get a thicker skin, you twit!”

        To reiterate others points – the atheist bus campaign is seen as an attack on religion, so is my very existence as an atheist. But I need to be the one to be quiet? If you are a skeptic, and you are religious, and you don’t want to have your beliefs questioned…don’t bring them up. If you do, be prepared to defend them just as anyone else when confronted with skeptics. If you can’t defend them, maybe you need to think on why you believe, and what is important to you – feeling “good” or believing something based on evidence and rational thought?

    4. “She is religious, in a rather generic way (you could call her a deist, someone who believes in a non-specific god) and over the years has received quite a bit of ostracism from the community.”

      [my emphasis]

      This sentence bugs the hell out of me. Who did this? When? Where? What was the context? And how, by the way, are we defining “ostracism”?

      Oh, that’s right. Plait doesn’t “do” specifics.

      1. Yes– what does this even mean?!

        Ostracism implies banishment or exclusion. Since about a fifth of TAM attendees have some form of belief according to one poll taken at a TAM I attended, it doesn’t seem like any actual ostracism is going on.

        So what the hell does it mean when Phil says she “has received quite a bit of ostracism from the community”?! (I guess he thinks that is “trivially easy” to find examples of ostracism so he won’t being providing any of those either–ha!)

        I think believers may be feeling like they are being ostracized anytime someone says they don’t think skepticism and religion are compatible. I’d be surprised if those moved by Phil’s speech could identify a single actual example of ostracism as defined by any dictionary. Believers do often confuse feelings for facts.

        1. That’s precisely it. Because someone felt ostracized doesn’t mean that feeling was justified by the situation. In order for reasonable people to make that determination, though, we need specifics. See how that works?—specifics allow us to have a grounded, meaningful discussion about these issues.

          A lot of believers say they “feel singled-out” in classrooms where ALL the teacher is doing is teaching evolution (i.e. science) in a science classroom. OK, fine. That’s how they feel. But that doesn’t mean their feeling is in any way justified. It doesn’t mean the instructor has done anything inappropriate.

    5. Where are all of these deists?

      Why would anyone bother being a deist? Why would one care about a god that has absolutely no interaction with the current universe? What would be the point of a religion based on deism — wouldn’t that be like a religion based on Maxwell’s equations?

      heddle is a Chicago-Statement Baptist

      David Heddle is very definitely a Calvinist.

      (…which is another religion that seems pointless — if your god decided before the beginning of the universe whether you going to heaven or hell, and there is literally nothing you can do to change that decision, why bother with all the church stuff?)

      1. I think some people are deists because their indoctrinators made them feel that bad things would happen if they didn’t believe.

        They WANT to believe; and they don’t want to go to hell. Deism is a “god” that the skeptics can’t touch.

        1. While losing my religion, I (re)deleved into such beliefs as Taoism, and went into a belief in some vague deistic deity. It didn’t sit well because I kept asking myself why I believed that, and my only answer was “because I wanted to”. I finally had to be honest and say that my commitment to reality was stronger than my wishes, and I had to admit that I really didn’t believe.

          I think of deism as the vestiges that are left when other religious beliefs fall. They let you fit into general society by going along with the “god” thing, while not having to adhere to any rules. Kinda the ultimate in cherry picking.

        1. To clarify (possibly):

          heddle has called himself a Baptist, I know he’s a Calvinist, and it was he who pointed to the Chicago Statement. I believed he’s a Reformed Baptist. It’s confusing, and I may be mistaken, but I think all RBs are Calvinists, but not all Reformed are Baptists nor of course are all Calvinists Baptists or the reverse.

          1. And yet you have to keep in mind that theoretically they all believe in the same God. Funny how that works, eh?

            1. And yet you have to keep in mind that theoretically they all believe in the same God. Funny how that works, eh?

              Heddle would disagree. The gods they believe in have different properties, therefore they can’t possibly be worshiping the same god (even if they use the same name). The scary part is when he starts to explain how this fits in with Judaism, where the OT patriarchs worshiped the same god as current Christians(obviously) because it’s taken as a matter of faith that they’re saved, and the only way to salvation is Jesus Christ…but post-Christ Jews worship a false god because they don’t recognize the Trinity…

      2. Seems to me quite some people believe in fate, and they may or may not be involved in organized religion.

        No, I can’t make sense of it either.

    6. I have a number of Deist friends. Some describe themselves as “Unitarians,” and are theists in exactly the same way that Einstein was (“Well, you know, the Universe is too big for us to comprehend, so I, like, hold it in awe and admiration, but I don’t think some invisible dude with a beard talks to us.”). At least one of them unabashedly describes himself a Deist because, while culturally Christian, he rejects 90% of their dogma.

      1. Ah, but “Unitarian” does not mean deist. It’s something of a catch-all, and I’ve been in a Unitarian church with a cross on the wall. And if someone accepts 10% of Christian dogma, I can’t see how the person could be called a deist (this is one reason I want to pin people down on their beliefs – I think there’s some sliminess there).

        I know the category isn’t defined unambiguously, but to me a key aspect (and I won’t go into how silly the whole thing is) in this context is that the deity doesn’t intervene in the natural world at all. That’s what these people (who, again, aren’t from what I’ve seen deists) think gives them a basis to argue that there’s no argument against it. An interventionist god = not deism.

  34. Apologies for the length…

    I am not a professional, credentialed, scientist – I am just a guy with a B.S. in Interdisciplinary Science (IS) with an emphasis on science communication and the public understanding of science. I do consider myself a serious amateur and in that context, I do what I can to, in Carl Sagan’s memorable phrase, be “a candle in the dark,” A voice for reason in our “demon-haunted world.”

    Phil’s speech struck a chord with me because it touched on the subject of my undergraduate thesis and some lingering questions that I have been looking into since graduating in December 2008. Phil’s speech (not a fan of it and my esteem for the BA has gone down a bit as a result) seemed concerned with what strategies and tactics will work to win hearts and minds. Of course, Plait’s recommendation of “don’t be a dick” was particularly unhelpful, but it has started an interesting discussion within the blogosphere. I commented on Dr. Plait’s blog link at comment numbers 196, 319, and 353 so I will not recap them here.

    Recently, I watched an interview with Lord Martin Rees, Patricia Smith Churchland, and A.C. Grayling from The Science Network. At about 00:32:00 into the dialog, Dr. Churchland notes that there is (primarily in the United States), and coming from both the far left and the extreme right ends of the cultural/political spectrum, a disturbing undercurrent of anti-intellectualism in general, and anti-science in particular. She confessed that she does not know how to reach the sort of people who get their news from Rush Limbaugh and/or a certain American news channel that she left unnamed.

    The gap between the relatively small numbers of scientifically literate laypersons, and the vast majority of those that don’t care or even actively oppose a scientific world-view poses a profound problem for skeptics, atheists, scientific rationalists, humanists, and anyone hoping to increase the role of evidence-based critical thinking as humanity attempts to deal with the problems (many of our own making) that vex our planet. Those like myself, with a strong science background but without Ph.D.’s, who move about in the general population, find our daily encounters with the crippled, lazy, sloppy thinking of our fellow citizens profoundly troubling – and dangerous.

    Proposed solutions to the problem of misplaced popular credulity/incredulity are nearly always some combination of better schools and/or teachers, more educational television programs, more popularizations by capable scientists or other public intellectuals, more scientifically accurate Hollywood pictures, better-trained science journalists, etc. However, the solutions suggested above all seem to make the unspoken assumption that all people are (roughly) equally capable of critical, skeptical thinking. Do we know that is so?

    One can see political/social conservatives and religious believers (lots of overlap there) perform seemingly superhuman feats of compartmentalization on a daily basis. One example that I often see is confident assertions that evolution or anthropogenic climate change are preposterous ideas, and yet, at the same time they are dismissing mountains of solid science, they find millennia-old miracle stories of virgin births, people rising from the dead, or nocturnal rides on flying horses, etc. completely credible and utterly reliable. To be honest, the reason I think compartmentalization is important because it was my inability to compartmentalize that played a crucial role in my decision to reject the religion I was raised to believe and to eventually reject all supernatural beliefs.

    Is “compartmentalization” a cognitive habit that is learned, or is it heritable, or is it a combination of the two (and maybe a few other things), as many things about “human nature” often turn out to be. Another possibility is that compartmentalization might be similar to the confabulations, documented by V.S. Ramachandran (and others), that victims of stroke-induced paralysis engage in, perhaps as a defense mechanism to maintain a consistent sense of “self” and the world around them.

    I think this is a crucial question to answer.

    1. The comment mentions two important questions.

      However, the solutions suggested above all seem to make the unspoken assumption that all people are (roughly) equally capable of critical, skeptical thinking.

      I’m not sure if this is true on either side. Accommodationists seem to pander to social factors of groups and individual emotions. Atheists may refer to moving the Overton window, or raw statistics (say, of educational processes).

      However, I can relate a different strategy that I have mentioned before.

      In Sweden, philosopher Ingemar Hedenius broke the back of religion for decades to come in the 40’s-50’s. His strategy [see other sources] was to use his public Hitchens impersonation to engage the state church priesthood. He did this in collaboration with a premier newspaper publisher that heeded off the contrarian philosophers and scientists to the sidelines of professional papers, so that the public mostly recognized the bumbling fools of the church.

      However, this can probably never be repeated, if not else because the strategy is well known.

      Is “compartmentalization” a cognitive habit that is learned, or is it heritable, or is it a combination of the two (and maybe a few other things), … . Another possibility … to maintain a consistent sense of “self”

      We would do well to know more about this.

      The alternatives are not mutually exclusive. If, as the folk psychology now goes, the self-aware mind is “a bug, not a feature” that become fixated, it has to provide us with a model of the distributed embodied mind after “the fact of act” as it were. This is no easy task, as can be borne out by our difficulties with true randomness vs pattern seeking of intention.

      It is easy to think that each and everyone engages in modeling many diverse and conflicting processes as “one” mind, such that resulting cognitive dissonance have to be edited out. That could happen until that process becomes too cumbersome in some cases, at which time we become aware of its effects and “recognize” it.

      However, that is again an enabling facile model. 😮 Maybe research will sort out enough of the mind functions to enable us to get a grip on this eventually.

    2. Interesting comment, I too have a complete lack of ability to compartmentalize. I have autism and I “believe” it might be related. (no evidence and I’m not a scientist) I find it difficult to even watch movies unless they are internally consistent. My wife says I lack the ability to “suspend my disbelief”, and enjoy a movie.

      Not long ago I read somewhere that autistics are more likely to be atheistic, It seemed like a poor study some suggested it was a veiled insult to atheists I took it as a compliment to autistics myself.

  35. I just ran across (through a link from The Daily Dish), a recent clip from Nisbet.

    And on issues such as the teaching of evolution in schools or how the public thinks about science the atheist movement has become sometimes synonymous with the position of the scientific community and I think in that process they might be doing more harm than good. They might actually… might be engaging in a lot of self-inflicted wounds, leaving the impression that you can’t value science, that you can’t have a scientific world and also be a person of faith and certainly that is a point that is open for debate.

    Do try to avoid self-inflicted wounds. Gouging your eyes out won’t help anyone.

    1. Ken Pidcock quoted Nisbet:

      They might actually… might be engaging in a lot of self-inflicted wounds, leaving the impression that you can’t value science, that you can’t have a scientific world and also be a person of faith and certainly that is a point that is open for debate.

      Actually, it should be fairly self-evident that faith is fundamentally antagonistic to the scientific method. The two are at diametric and absolute opposition.

      That so many people will actively choose a comfortable fantasy over reality is unfortunate. Tactics may dictate avoiding pressing the matter, but integrity demands that we not pretend a false compatibility where the exact opposite is the case.



    2. Haven’t heard anything from Nisbet for awhile. Can’t these guys say anything new? Or at least say it in a new way?

      1. Haven’t heard anything from Nisbet for awhile

        Don’t say his name! Do you want to summon him like Hastur or the Candyman?!

        (Oh, great, now there’s a King in Yellow in my bedroom looking very pissed…I just hope the demonic serial killer can take care of him…)

  36. Phil Plait has sunk to using Crank Argument Tactics:

    *Plait refuses to define his argument. He won’t say what constitutes dickishness.

    *Plait refuses to cite examples or provide any actual evidence. He says it is trivially easy to find evidence and that it is the audiences burden to provide the evidence that proves his case–which isn’t even possible since he refuses to provide the definition needed to find matching evidence.

    *Plait provides no evidence of a trend (hard to do when you don’t define the argument or provide any evidence).

    *Plait provides no evidence that his thesis of undefined, un proven dickishness actually results in aggregate harm to skepticism.

    *Plait actually does what he claims to be against. He calls people dicks in order to change their minds.

    In short, Plait has become what he would normally rail against. He seems to be suffering from some sort of woo inspired Stockholm Syndrome, where he starts to use the very crank arguments used against his scientific stances on astronomy. I think we need some sort of charity to treat these people… =:-o

  37. Generally I am more of a contrarian or a confrontationalist than an accomodationist myself, for instance I simply do not see any merit at all in most critisisms of Dawkins from either theists or accomodationists. On the other hand there are times and places for most everything and everyone has to make up there own mind ad to which tact to take.

    To my mind two examples that come most imediatly mind of acomodationists that I understand somewhat and still have plenty of respect for are 1)E.O. Wilson and his decision that the stakes with our environment are so high that we need to put our differences with theist aside and work with them to prevent an imenent oncoming disaster befor it is too late and 2) Barbera Forrest. I think she works with that particular group that was singled out, the NCSE. Any acomodationism that is practiced by her and her group I think is at least thought out and calculated to be a rational decision towards our goal of getting to the truth.

    1. I respect both of those people too. Of course they aren’t maligning more vocal critics of religion in order to accommodate. (Psst… Phil, maybe you can use them as an example of how YOU can avoid being a dick.)

        1. Oh– I had missed that. Disappointing. It would be nice if accommodationists could accommodate religion without making bad guys out of their fellow atheists. She talks about Jerry’s “strategy” being a failure with no evidence that the accommodationist strategy is working at all.

          I think that when you treat religious woo different than other woo, then you give the religious the idea that scientist think there’s a reason to respect religious woo over other woo. Rather than presenting a reason, they just malign those who don’t defer to faith.

          Rosenburg is right, it’s never really about incivility (nor is it about “dickishness”).

  38. Aside from the occasional “dickery” I seldom see this kind of thing from the serious skeptic’s side of the isle. I do however get it regularly from the theist side. So much so that I make a point to preface any discourse with ” I am happy to have a conversation as long as it remains civil”. I don’t know any of those that I engage but many , judging by the comment about my mother , pretend to know me.
    BTW the discourse seldom lasts very long once I the light of reason is shined into the dark corners of faith.

    If this is being a dick I am a serious stiffy.

  39. Well one person who clearly comes to mind is Pat Condell. Personally I like him, his use of strong language but it can be non polite for the theists. For a fence sitter his method can be a wake up call.

    1. I’ve completely gone off Pat Condell over the past year or so. His support in the UK election for the Xenophobic UKIP party – including their platform of introducing more faith schools in the UK – betrayed his earlier statements on religion.

      1. The reply of a person who got his political education off the back of a cerial packet and his brains out of a cracker box.

        You can support a party without agreeing to ALL its platform points my politically simple chum.

        Im a socialist but would never vote Labour. I find I have points of agreement with several parties, including shamefully the frickin BNP….does that make me a BNP supporter through and through…NO!

        Pat speaks as an Englishman is brought up to. Stridently and using biting sharp wit that cuts deep.

        Atheism is about free choice – there are no “approved politics” and Pat speaks for a broad spectrum of people, myself included.

        1. Similarly it is “politically simple” to suggest that others have the same political interests. Ironically you commented on a free choice as if it was a bad thing.

        2. “Pat speaks for a broad spectrum of people, myself included”
          Well, now that Pat has revealed himself to be a complete arsehole with the political intellect of a root vegetable I can perfectly understand how you find him a fellow traveler.
          Perhaps you’d like to list some of the policies of the British version of the US Teaparty that are worth voting for?
          I somehow doubt it. Pat might speak for you but he doesn’t speak for me and probably a lot of others.

  40. I come at this a whole different way, one that upsets some atheists.

    My position is that since the Enlightenment we athesists have tried using reason and logic to put our point across. This has usually resulted in direct attacks by faith, including voilence. We have even tried the “look lets all just get along” position. Again this has been spurned by the faithful.

    So now the gloves come off, the knuckle dusters go on, and I have taken up the position of the good Mr Jefferson – if you say something ridiculous then you get the sharp end of my tongue. No being polite once the Hitler trope comes out, no being polite when you propose something so unscientific it beggars belief. The louder and more strident the faithful argue, the more I turn up the volume in return.

    And if that makes me a dick, its a badge I will wear with pride.

    Id rather be a dick than a mealy mouthed spineless intellectually dishonest apologist collaborator.

  41. In my opinion there seems to be an unwritten requirement of entry to polite media society in the USA, in exactly the same way that there is a requirement for politicians to be professing Christians.
    For media types, like Mooney, Nisbett and Plait they don’t need to be Christians but they must not be atheists of the “bad” sort – which today includes the usual suspects of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Dennett – hence the constant need to ‘other’ the views and style of the outspoken atheists. Phil has just got a presenting job on Discovery channel and I guess it’s time for him to present himself as one of the nice ‘moderates’ rather than one of the nasty gnus.

    1. That could be a factor, but there are many other potentials, like the polarization going on and how that affects the skeptics movement.

      In the end I personally don’t feel that it is important as regards the individual – it is enough that Plait elevates religion, I don’t want to elevate Plait by second-guessing his motivations.

      What I most wanted to say is that wildebeests going nasty makes for a bigger herd, while moderates sex ed is somewhat lacking. “Accommodate instead of intercourse, beware of dicks, and if maneuvered into engagement prefer asshattery above all other positions.”

    2. If what Sigmund proposes is the case, and we have been given zero reason to doubt it, then you can write Plait off as being a skeptic, and add him to the growing list of intellectual prostitutes.

      1. I don’t even mind the accommodationism so much; I even understand why it might further some goals. I like Phil and would like to see him on the Discovery channel. But I really dislike the way he poisoned the well against his fellow skeptics that don’t defer to faith.

        Did he really need to build himself up by putting others down?

        When I was young, I saw Madelyn Murray O’Hair on Phil Donohue and I thought she was a bitter atheist just like the audience did. But then I grew up and had a chance to watch the same clip again, and I understood how much my first reaction was due to confirmation bias –society had told me how shrill and nihilistic atheists are so that is what I saw.

        As a grown up, it was the audience that seemed dickish; They were angry at Madelyn because they needed to imagine that faith (and protecting faith) made them better people somehow. They didn’t like that O’Hair felt the same way about their religion that myths and cults.

        Without evidence illustrating the dickish behavior he’s witnessing, I’ll assume that Phil is confirming his own society-induced biases the same way I did — but he is a self-identified skeptic; he should be interested in the ways he might be fooling himself –so, too, should those who cried during his speech.

        It seems, the growing cadre of vitriolic, cause-harming atheists exist more in Phil’s mind (and in the mind of those with hurt feelings) than in reality.

        If nothing else, I hope Phil apologizes for not giving evidence for this assertion and allowing his followers to imagine that he was talking about PZ, Dawkins, etc– Per my observations, these outspoken atheists are bringing far more rationality to the world than the ones who claim that such people are “dicks” or “not helping”.

  42. “Don’t be a dick” works fine with rational, reasonable people. It has no effect whatsoever on creationists and their facilitators who will continue to outright lie and evade, and tell the same lie endlessly over and over again, and seek new ways to force their lies upon children in schools no matter how polite, reasonable, rationale, evidence-supported and decent you are.

    When you’ve exhausted all evidence-supported pathways, all rational and reasonable pathways, and all decent pathways, and are still up against the blind, dogmatic, and intransigent brick wall of creationism, creationists deserve all the abuse and ridicule they get and then some.

  43. There are plenty of ways to provide examples of poor behaviour without rousing too much animosity. One could discuss something which happened years or decades ago (Sagan vs. Velikovsky, say), and point out where you think the forces of skepticism went wrong in that case. If what you’re talking about truly is a deep-seated problem, you should be able to find examples from longer ago than last month. Or, you could look at your own past and say, “I screwed up here”. (If you don’t have an example of yourself screwing up, what the #!$%#! are you doing speaking at a skeptics’ conference?) Not providing concrete examples cuts off the chance of useful discussion and reduces the whole affair to dreary, dull, repetitive emotionalism.

    It is impossible to be truly civil in matters of religion and politics; one can only gesture at somebody else and make oneself out to be better than they are.

  44. By his own standards , Phil Plait is behaving like a dick. If this is pointed out to him , he’ll probably take it as further proof of what he’s saying.

  45. Somehow, to me, the term “skeptic” seems wishy-washy (like, “I’m not really convinced that your belief system is correct, but I can’t put my finger on why”). Perhaps skeptics should instead refer to themselves as “empiricists” and the “skeptical movement” as the “empiricist movement”?

    1. This should be checked out, but I think it has historical roots and influences from things like philosophy.

      As far as the modern, “standradized”, skeptic movement goes, it would be a small step to entertain your suggestion I think.

  46. I’m just back from a brief trip to Stockholm on which my hosts were the publishers Fri Tanke, who are also active in the Swedish Humanist Association (Humanisterna). Christer Sturmark is the head of Fri Tanke and has been the chairman of Humanisterna since 2005. He says outspoken atheists in Sweden – like him, like the people he works with – get exactly this kind of nonsense. “You can’t say that; don’t be so uncivil; how dare you.” It’s depressing to see Phil Plait providing such a vivid example of it, while refusing to give any actual examples but just saying “There are lots and lots and lots” over and over. Yeah right, and there were lots and lots and lots of Jews making blood sacrifices, and lots and lots and lots of niggers pushing white people off sidewalks, and lots and lots and lots of CommOnists taking over the gummint and the movies and the universities. Lots and lots and lots; it’s just that nobody could actually name any.


    1. Im pretty sure he could name some examples (P.Z. called so and so a witless wanker) – But then he’d find himself in the unfortunate position of defending that so and so isn’t in fact a witless wanker.

      1. Well of course he could – he could find comments on blogs, for instance. But I’m not questioning whether he could or not, I’m pointing out that he didn’t. If he had, for instance, cited a few random blog comments, we could have said you can find snotty blog comments on anything; surely that’s not what all this scapegoating is about. Since he didn’t, we can neither argue nor agree, because we don’t even know exactly what he’s talking about.

        1. Exactly.

          And since no one thinks they’re dicks, we either use our definition and agree with him or we imagine new definitions. Ultimately, without definitions or examples, no one really know just what the hell he’s talking about.

        2. I agree with your point as stated here – I thought your examples implied that he couldn’t find anything (not blog comments – but blog posts by prominent atheists).

        3. What I want to know is will he hold himself and others of his ilk (Mooney, etc) and theists (Franklin Graham, Ray Comfort, etc) to the same standard? Will he be (politely) dressing down them for their tone?

    1. Hilarious – and not even featuring the Swedish Kook. *Hymble myrde thor – nei. Hymble myrde odin – nei. Hymble myrde rahma – nei. Hymble myrde jahwe – nei – HYMBLE MYRDE JAHWE NEI!? BORK, BORK, BORK!!!*

  47. Most excellent points. I find it especially galling that Phil & co take such strong stances without knowing the relevant psychological research. I mean, FFS, persuasion is an empirical question. (And there is a HUGE literature).

    Give us the evidence!

  48. i don’t have any hard numbers but i could easily come up with numerous examples of people “being a dick”. most, the vast majority, of these kinds of comments have been exactly that comments to a blog post. a few have been by the blogger. that was what i took his talk to be about. maybe that was because this has been my experience.

    what annoys me about such comments is that they are used as confirmation that atheists are evil, mean people. it’s those comments, that hurt people’s feelings that they remember.

    sometimes Mark Edward on the Skepticblog ( comes across a bit rough, but that could just be me. he’s never said anything that i feel would warrant a complaint on my part.

    Dawkins does not pull any punches, but i also think that most, if not all, of the times people site him as being “a dick” they have misunderstood what he was saying, or they look for key “offensive” words but ignore the context.

    Sometimes P Z Myers is a over the top, but i think that’s just his shtick. it’s sometimes the comments on his blog and a few others that some of the people can get nasty and juvenile.

  49. It’s a flat-out performative contradiction: Phil Plait is trying to persuade certain unnamed atheists to behave in a more conciliatory fashion towards religious people.

    His technique for persuading these people is to try and shame and humiliate them (by calling them “dicks”).

    Ergo, Plait concedes that namecalling (as an element of shaming) is indeed a viable means of persuasion. If it weren’t, he wouldn’t be calling some of his closest allies “dicks.”

  50. This accomodationism is an obvious concerted effort by the TAM organizers and other skeptical powers that be. Since this morning I’ve encountered 1) a “don’t be a dick” talk by the otherwise excellent Rebecca Watson, 2) a list non-offensive and non-religious words to be used instead of “bless you” on the geologic podcast, 3) and the likely unrelated but just as silly position of Ben Goldacre and other British skeptics that maybe homeopathy is not so bad.

    I am just going to go ahead and state that it is counter productive to the skeptical movement to engage in marketing. In large part the skeptical movement should be about showing how facts do not care how we feel about them.

    1. Dunno about the other stuff, but Rebecca’s talk had basically nothing to do with the whole accommodation business (and, at one point, counsels responding to “I’ll pray for you” with “Ask Jesus to stop giving babies leukaemia, too!”).

      1. Which works — if it’s the “I’ll pray for you” which they use to close out an argument they’re losing — but if everybody has the same response, it gets old, y’know? Variety!

  51. So there’s this behaviour called “dickishness” which is bad, harms our cause, destroys friendships and alliances and undermines our credibility. Sounds serious!

    If it’s so serious why is he playing it so coy, not giving any definitions or examples?

    If we make our own definitions, we’re like the Christian followers, each making up their own fuzzy, emotive definitions of “spiritual” and “God” and what do you know, their version of God always seems to agree with them. Without clarity, everyone makes up their own definition of “dick”, careful to make sure they aren’t one and no one makes any changes beyond feeling smug at having yet another reason to attack people they dislike.

    Or Phil could treat us like adults and give us definitions and examples. It will mean singling some people and perhaps upsetting them but surely that’s a small price to pay if it leads them to changing their behaviour. We could have a discussion about strategy and tactics and possibly lead to some real insights.



    1. My name is John and I have been a dick. I have actively disagreed with others regarding their religion, homeopathy, 9-11, and vaccinations. In exchange for disagreeing with them I have been called: a 8*tard, an ***hole, a ****ing waste of space and others.

      Why just yesterday someone called me a **tard because I refused to accept his statement that Wakefield’s research has been duplicated (yet he never gave any evidence).

      I always feel that when someone uses insults they already know they have lost the discussion and are looking for a way out.

      1. [chorus] Hi John [/chorus]

        If you call someone an asshole instead of, you know, giving evidence or reasons why they’re wrong then you’re right, that’s pretty lame. Dickish even. Do you suppose that’s what Phil is talking about (and how would we know if he was)?

        And given the toxic levels of ignorance, at what point can we call them assholes or is that always a dick move, no matter how much evidence we present and no matter how much harm they do? Does it matter if we’re talking one-on-one or if we’re in public and have an audience which may be far more receptive than our ostensible opponent? Is it really just a matter of insults or is that a symptom?

        I’ve no clue and Phil hasn’t given us any way of finding out. We’re told to not be a dick but really, can anyone here say just what he means by being a dick?

      2. Accommodationist Atheist Steps:

        1. We admitted we were powerless over atheism – that our lives had become unmanageable.

        2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to popularity.

        3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of Framing as we understood It.

        4. Made a facile and fruitless moral inventory of ourselves.

        5. Admitted to Framing, to ourselves and to Mooney the exact nature of our shortcomings.

        6. Were entirely ready to have Framing remove all these signs of character.

        7. Humbly asked It to remove our shortcomings.

        8. Made a list of all persons that had *dicked*, and became willing to ostracize them all.

        9. Made direct ostracism to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would help them or others.

        10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we came up short promptly buried it.

        11. Sought through cold reading and ostracism to improve our conscious contact with Framing as we understood it, praying only for knowledge of Its will for us and the power to carry that out.

        12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this “don’t be a dick” message to atheists and to bury these same principles in all our own affairs.

      3. Its situational isnt it?
        Say you meet a creationist – to directly call him a rude name , well it might be uncivil. Same creationist lobbying to have his crap taught in schools – well borderline, probably deserves something rude. Same creationist in position of power actively passing legislation regarding teaching creationism in schools? – big a$$0.

        At what time does civil behavior override truth?

        Do you disagree?

        1. I think the bigger issue is that someone else is deciding you are being a dick. If I, as a dick, argue that not only is creationist wrong to teach in schools as science as it is harmful to science and to the children’s learning. Is this then dickish behaviour? If it is to one outsider’s perspective, but not another, how dickish am I?

          Who decides if I am being dickish?

  52. The Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that the biggest dicks are the least likely to identify themselves as the dicks in Phil’s speech, while less dickish folks might wonder if he was talking about them.

  53. Ugh. Talk about sounding like “Tom Johnson” – from Plait’s third post –

    Eventually I heard from others who told me there were several people in the audience who were crying because they had felt so alone. Many were feeling so isolated from the skeptical community — and had experienced so many encounters with other skeptics who were rude, boorish, insulting, and dismissive — that they were seriously considering leaving the movement altogether.

    I also heard from hundreds — hundreds — of people thanking me for what I said. They had seen others be jerks, or had been jerks themselves, and were contrite about it.

    Really? It sounds more like people talking each other and themselves into a good old self-pity fest, to me.

    1. Really. It’s cringe-makingly embarrassing. *Crying* because people question your theistic beliefs? Jeezis. Even if it is true (and I’m nowhere near convinced these people have been “savaged” or treated so abominably as Phil asserts), it’s pure bathos.

    2. …and so Phil reached in his pocket and found that he had only brought two tissues. How could two tissues possibly dry hundreds and hundreds of eyes, how could he possibly sooth all those hurts, but he had to try. And it came to pass that he did take those two tissues and did give out pieces to each that came unto him. And as he gave the pieces they did dry more and more eyes and the pieces did seem to be endless in number and the more he did break them the more little tissues he did have. And it did come to pass that his two tissues had dried every eye yay even every one.

      Suck it,

      jesus christ

  54. Wow. I almost believed for a moment that religions/supernatural beliefs were a new thing, a menace that got us all by surprise, and that now, after millennia of prosperous scientific developments, science was suddenly on the brink of collapse, after a brief neglect of seemingly innocent fringe ideas, then fairy tales, that went creeping unnoticed, but suddenly revealed its true face, and now were strangling science to death with its powerful tentacles of ignorance.

    The whole accomodationwussies versus the thunderdome gladiators of atheoscience “debate” is ridiculous.

    There is a niche, a time and place for different approaches. People have been believing in ghosts since the dawn of humankind and still the acceptance of science have been progressing steadily over the centuries, at a rate that impressively fast, given how new it really is, in the historical scale. And atheism, some of that perhaps as a consequence of that, is also reaching the highest numbers ever.

    So… I think that would be a good idea to just relax… realize that science isn’t about to be abolished. Go beat (metaphorically) the hell out of some deist-inclined agnostic friend who brags that his views are somewhat backed by science, and have fun with that. But don’t be so upset that many, many people, think that’s perfectly plausible that the supernatural beings their parents told them about is real, as is electricity and lots of seemingly fantastic stuff science tells is real too. Specially if they accept vaccines and evolution. Actually, tell about them to someone who believes in the same god, but questions evolution and/or vaccines, or whatever. My gut feeling is that the odds are that here the “all or nothing”, no-concessions defense of science will be less effective to the advancement of science than a more bland, accomodationist, wussy-pussy, coward approach.

    Do the champions of science have some scientific research to point otherwise, that the more ones confronts the beliefs someone holds as the most important, the more likely this person is to accept the scientific view on some matter?

    That would be a nice addition to the “relax” suggestion. Some googling about the actual scientific efficacy of one approach or the other, or possibly related clues.

    But perhaps… that’s not quite the point of the whole “non-acommodationist”. Perhaps, and I hope not, it’s not the advancement of science that’s intrinsically valued here, but rather only of this purist acceptance. That is, thiking that does not matter that creationism or whatever recedes, if these would-be-creationists would instead, still be theists, or even deists… that would be a filthy, impure scientific view that they would have, and that worths nothing.

    I don’t believe that it is really the case, I hope it’s not… but sometimes that’s what it seems like. I don’t really tend to go on looking about the last not news on the “accommodationist or not” debate, but I’ve stumble on that more times I’ve wanted to, and never, not even once, the issue at stake was what is really effective to promote science, with a scientific backing, rather than just an idealistic discourse. Somewhat akin to that of (many) anarcho-capitalists in a way, defending more some sort of utopia where ideals reign in all glory, without much concern to the real world.

    Gosh. I can’t remember right now some sort of “accomodationist” statement or text that I thought that could somehow backfire, open the doors to a wider acceptance of superstition and ignorance. There must be, all this fuss over the last years can’t be based on nothing really important, or could it?

    1. *We* were relaxed. It was Plait that tried to unduly influence our behavior. Going against the basis of your comment, btw, which leaves you no foot to stand on here.

      As for the “different approaches”, maybe you should read the thread. Comment #2 has us discussing whether Plait should say “don’t be a dick” in own circumstances. Comment #5 has us vouching for “different approaches”.

      And finally, on atheist message, cf “abolished”, “beat”: strawman.

      I must agree with Michael: You are being an über-dick. And again _for no good reason_. [/holds nose while taking out the trash]

    2. Danniel Soares:

      “My gut feeling is that […]

      Do the champions of science have some scientific research to point otherwise […]

      You obviously consider empirical evidence the gold standard here. And for the life of me I cannot fathom why you wouldn’t hold your own argument to that same standard. Are you being honest with yourself?

  55. My guess is that the viewpoints of Tom Johnson, Phil Plait, and others were formed by appropriating—uncritically, unconsciously—the views of religious persons who speak out against criticism of religion. When there is no substance other than “hey don’t do that,” their arguments tend to aim at the impoliteness of their opponents.

    In the case of Tom Johnson, he attended a Christian college. Whether or not he is an atheist as he claims, he undoubtedly often heard from his peers and educators about how uncouth it is to criticize religion. It is not surprising that he incorporated this into his worldview.

    Plait and others probably have a worthy motivation to be fair-minded and to listen to critics. Their mistake is in appropriating the views of critics which are not grounded in evidence. They are rightly not so fair-minded when it comes to the proponents of astrology, homeopathy, global warming denialism, and other such beliefs. How is a virgin birth so different from those things?

    1. In Plait’s case it is easy to think that he hears “sorry Dave, I can’t do that” in a monotone when atheists protests against him being a dick.

      Ironically the black monolith makes a good god impression.

    2. TJ goes to a Christian college? This is news to me. This increases the likelihood that he was an Xian crusader on a smear campaign against prominent atheists.

  56. She was crying because what I said was something she had longed to hear from someone, anyone, in the skeptic community for years: that we need to be less antagonistic, and more inclusive. When we exclude someone for one belief they may have, we are losing them despite whatever other skeptical drive they might possess.

    And yet this woman was at a TAM talk. Why does Phil assume we were pushing this woman away from skepticism? What if she was *this close* to giving up whatever vestige of superstition she still clung to when Phil came along and assured her that she needn’t bother? Tears of relief. I get to keep my woo! Thanks, Phil!

    1. It’s a good thing that Penn & Teller weren’t there, those guys are such DICKS.

      Oh wait…

      Ya know, with all this wondering whether PZ or Dawkins are dicks, has anyone considered that P & T are as close to dicks as public atheists get? They shout insult, ridicule believers and aren’t hiding in the dark but do this year after year on television. And in exchange for their extreme dickitude, they are honoured guests at TAM and other sceptical meetups.

      So how does Phil Plait react to their brand on insult mongering? He calls them “awesome” (, appears on their show and describes their show as:

      just found out someone put that brief segment on YouTube. So if you haven’t seen it, here you go. WARNING (and I mean it): This clip contains very bad language. A lot of it. And rude gestures. And one short gag that will probably offend a lot of Christians. And some phenomenal dumbosity. And Penn swears a lot. A lot.

      But it’s really really funny.

      Yup, P & T act like dicks and Plait absolutely revels in it.

      1. Do you mean that a goddly-coddling faitheist has acted in a blithely hypocritical manner?
        Surely not.

          1. From the post:

            “I just found out someone put that brief segment on YouTube. So if you haven’t seen it, here you go. WARNING (and I mean it): This clip contains very bad language. A lot of it. And rude gestures. And one short gag that will probably offend a lot of Christians. And some phenomenal dumbosity. And Penn swears a lot. A lot.
            But it’s really really funny.”

            He may have changed his mind since but more likely it reflects the double standard between religious people and moon hoaxers.

            1. Yes, he even goes out of the way to soften any insult Christians might feel but not other woo.

              Phil is “keeping two sets of books,” and he thinks “being a dick” is not doing so.

              He’s unwilling to examine whether he may be confirming a bias he’s picked up from the “belief in belief” crowd.

              I want to ask him, “Phil how would you know if you were wrong about this “increasing vitriol” or wrong about it “hurting the cause”? It seems he’s presumed both premises with an iota of evidence for either.

  57. Richard, you make good points, but I’m wondering if you’ve overlooked the geographical and cultural divide between your world and Plait’s. America has a far higher concentration of stupid, and Americans haven’t been exposed to the tradition of satire and irony that we enjoy in these fair isles, that slowly rust away the shackles of religious tradition. It’s all so much younger and fresher over there, and emotions are rawer (yes, Ophelia, they are far more prone to indulgent self-pity, too).

    Just a thought.

  58. Phil is a great science communicator but lately his accomodationist bent has become rather annoying and the resembalwnce to mooneys arguments has to make one wonder if he’s positioning himself for a Tempelton gig…

  59. Well, I see that after demanding to be shown examples of dickishness in this post, you have done us the favour of providing one in the concluding sentence of your next! Thanks for saving us the trouble.(Not that it would have been hard; everyone is a dick sometimes and if you haven’t noticed that by now you can’t be as observant as you think you are.)

    1. Yeah, like you’re being a dick now. Thanks for the example! Now we know what is “being dickish” means to you. And we know what “being dickish” means to me.

      Dickishness is clearly in the eye of the beholder.

      Surely, if people think certain blog writers are dicks should avoid reading those blogs (and then writing dickish commentary on them)since it doesn’t seem to be helping further any goal.

      1. See, that wasn’t hard. Now we are up to three examples of dickishness in as many posts.

        Actually sometimes I enjoy being a dick, and in the appropriate context it does little harm.

        I gather from the comments that most here are committed evangelical atheists, but that at least some of them are not without intelligence (and all are clearly used to fairly harsh forms of argumentation).

        So, although I agree with Plait’s point that being perceived as a dick can reduce one’s effectiveness in convincing the convertible, I don’t think that my own dickishness will undermine any effectiveness that I might have in this context.

        (Does that make four? I don’t think so, but of course perhaps you might.)

    2. If Graziano thinks that religion for everyone is simply is a supportive community and not a set of beliefs about what exists, he needs to get out of the lab more.

      Here, let me fix that for you:

      If Graziano thinks that religion for everyone is simply is a supportive community and not a set of beliefs about what exists, he needs a larger sample size, say, get out of the lab more.

      See what a difference in tone! (¬_¬)

      You know, since Plait made it so clear it is a slippery-slope argument in the context of critique, why did you have to repeat Plait’s Phallacy?

    3. One of the main objections that I have to Phil’s (implicit) definition of what constitutes ‘being a dick’, is that it ONLY applies to holders of the Religious delusion, (not any other delusion, where the sufferers appear to be fair game), and even staunchly excludes certain individuals, such as Penn & Teller, whom he allows to be in-yer-face offensive to believers.

      The triple standard of inconsistency is both mind-boggling, and completely unexplained, leaving gnu atheists to merely guess what is going on.

  60. Well Tim Farley’s site, “WHat’s the Harm” uses anectdotal evidence. Pretty good use I think.

    Also, it’s amazing how people seem to assume this was directed to the “big names”. OK guys get over your egos. Go to the bar (yeah come down and hang with the regular people at TAM) and you’ll see lots of examples. Plus people explaining how they can’t go to Thanksgiving dinner as they grandmother INSISTS on grace and “I said we could say grace if she gave me 10 minutes to talk about how there is no God, and then grandmother started crying… sheez my family are morons”. It’s the day to day interactions. Dawkins said at TAM that he rarely sees or interacts with anyone that does not think like he does. (during the question and answer bit). That’s his choice, but it’s a wee bit like fundies only hanigng with their own kind. Then the entire “the number one problem with the UK is Islam” (even in moderate forms) and there was a sense of unease. Islam or Islamics? It wasn’t being a dick so much as being spooky. No one said anything about a solution to this number one problem, I’m sure education and teaching critical thinking skills wasn’t the entire solution to this PROBLEM. SOmeone joked that Dawkins supported the immigration policy of Arizona, but that’s because he thought Catholicism was the number one problem facing the Southwest.

    1. We all acknowledge that religion is a problem in the daily life. What we don’t agree on is short- and long term solutions.

  61. OK Anne Coulter and Richard Dawkins have a lot in common with their view of Islam. They also both have best selling books. They also don’t believe they are dicks. But, I don’t think she converts too many to the Republican right wing crowd, even though I do think she can be devestatingly witty and funny.

    Now, are her books as well researched and as erudite as Dawkins? No way! So refering to Dawkins and Hitchens as “our Coulter” is a disservice and frankly…being a dick. It works both ways, you can’t say “Dawkins is our Coulture” and not be insulting.

  62. What is your goal?

    Indeed the critical question.

    The goal, surely, is not to convince obstinate fools, because they are beyind convincing and politeness works no better than vitriol, and maybe worse.

    So when faced with an obstinate fool, the goal is to convince not your counterpart, but the fence-sitter. The person who might listen to the arguments of an obstinate fool and perhaps be inclined to say “Hmm, I guess that makes sense”.

    In that situation, doing less than showing foolishness for what it is would be at best a waste of time, and is likely dangerous.

    You cannot leave the field to charlatans and ignoramuses in the name of politeness.

    Phil is inconsistent. He has excoriated fools himself often enough in the past.

  63. Phil was being a dick when he commanded so much attention, without even giving the specifics of what he was talking about, leaving everyone guessing.

    Can you imagine a science talk done this way?

    “I have observed some behaviour that I think is counter-productive. Thankyou.”

    Phil, where is the evidence? Where are the examples? It’s just time wasting otherwise.

  64. it was dawkin’s the god delusion that started me on the path away from superstition, thanks Richard, I was irked / troubled / challenged even by the title god DELUSION , this basically forced me to confront this idea. I was so convinced that Dawkins must be deluded, until I actualy read the book ( and many after ) . holding hands is sweet, thinking is better. direct plain simple questioning, no need to insult people but open season on silly ideas

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