Sunday, August 22, 2010

Don't be a Dick - My Take

I've been slow on responding to what's been a hot topic recently, but what else is new?

This topic, as the title of this post suggests, is Phil Plait's talk at TAM8 which has been retrospectively titled "Don't be a Dick".

Essentially, the point Phil makes is that being overly aggressive and confrontational doesn't do much to further the cause of rational thinking. In fact, it hinders is because when someone is challenged, their natural inclination is to entrench themselves. This isn't to say we shouldn't continue to challenge pseudo-science or other such topics in an impassioned manner, but Phil's claim is that we've lost passion and changed over to arrogant condemnation in which "hubris is running rampant, and that egos are just out of check and sometimes logic in those situations is left by the wayside."

I'd left off from commenting on this because I figured that someone else had probably already said what I was going to. But after following the response over the past week, the point I wanted to make has gone completely left out. So I guess I will comment.

First off, I'd like to agree with a lot of what Jerry Coyne said at WEIT. If you don't want to read his commentary, it boils down to this: Phil doesn't cite a single source of what he's describing because he assumes it's too "trivial". From that, Coyne concludes, not that it isn't happening, but it's not as widespread as Phil is claiming and Phil would likely have had to call out some popular skeptics like PZ.

I agree with this 100%. In his talk, Phil makes a point of how we need a united front from believers and non-believers alike to really combat pseudo-science because, without the extra help, we're just too few. Phil's a uniter so I can see why he wouldn't want to call someone out when a simple nudge would (hopefully) suffice. I'm not going to find much fault with that.

However, what I do have a problem with is being sloppy with definitions. Where's this magical line between strong worded, accurate rhetoric and being a "dick"?

To me, this is the key point that was somehow completely lost. When does the line get crossed and instead of reaching out to people, we're truly turning them away?

One of the most frustrating things, but also the most true things I've ever learned about learning was told to me by one of my astrophysics professors at KU; When we complained of how difficult his tests were, he'd always respond that "learning shouldn't be easy or comfortable."

And looking back, it's absolutely true. The greatest personal growth I've gone through, and I suspect most people go through, is that intellectual growth that had to be fought for. It was fraught with anxiety and self-doubt, being lost in the forest and stumbling around till I found the right path, but in doing so, learned the lay of the land well enough that I learned what wasn't the right path.

Unfortunately, too many people don't want to be told they're on the right path. They're comfortable where they are. Furthermore, we have a society in which relativism reigns. It's not kosher to question anyone else's beliefs, no matter how damaging they might be to themselves, or worse, to others.

In an ideal world, we could simply point this out and, hallelujah, they'd come around. But, as Phil admits in his speech, it's quite often hard to do this because you can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into in the first place. Sometimes more is needed.

As I just mentioned, such people don't have the good sense to look around, see the harm they're causing and feel bad enough to fix it. They're often blinded by their own ignorance in a stunning display of the Dunning-Kruger effect. More is needed.

If someone doesn't feel bad that not-vaccinating their children is taking a deadly gamble, not just with their children's lives, but the lives of numerous others, they should. If someone doesn't feel bad that they killed one child through "faith healing" such that they would continue to use the same practice on another of their children, they should.

Such people often don't realize just how stupid they're being and need it pointed out. They need to be made to feel bad about it. If the facts won't do it, language might.

This isn't new ground I'm breaking here. Religion has known this for a long time. In fact, much of the foundation of religion is all about making people feel bad so they can sell them some snake oil that will make it all better.

While in college, I can recall several instances in which groups would stand around the campus pretending to do research for psychology study via a survey. They'd ask questions that boiled down to whether or not you'd violated God's commandments, and when they were finished, point out your "moral failures" and how you needed God. This doesn't always work, but more importantly, it often does. Many people are swayed by this sort of thinking. They're pulled into a manufactured guilt trip and it is the source of deep and unyielding faith. The religious call this "convicting" people of their sins.

It's a sneaky tactic, but one that we as skeptics can use in a much more intellectually honest way. After all, what we're selling is real. Critical thinking improves the quality of life and allows numerous more who wouldn't live otherwise, to enjoy that life. That's a demonstrable fact.

So how can we use this to our advantage?

By using strong, accurate, unequivocal language people are often taken aback. And although they can entrench themselves, I maintain there's a key time in here that's the most critical point for learning to take place.

When someone is told they're ignorant on a given position, the most natural response is to deny it outwardly. However, they really have to scramble at this point. No matter what, they're going to have to review their position, either internally to make damn sure they're not as ignorant as claimed. Or externally as they throw up their arguments to argue the claim. The problem is, that both of these ways allow them to repeat their "logic" process of how they arrived at this position and this is the risk. If the same process is repeated, it only becomes ingrained which is the exact opposite of what we're trying to achieve. How could anything positive come of that!?

But what's important here is that in that review process, there is the chance to change the flow. If new information is given that must be factored into that review, it can change the conclusion. And I think that's the key.

If the discussion is kept too light, it doesn't engage people sufficiently that they're really forced to internalize new information and see how it fits with their previous views. Skeptics are people who do this without needing motivation, but many people just don't (although the like to think they do). They're overwhelmed by confirmation bias and but don't even know what that means. They need that swift kick in the ass to get the ball rolling and as my astrophysics professor told me, "it shouldn't be comfortable."

So that's my general thought. You don't need to use this method straight off. See what sort of person you're dealing with. Test the waters. Toss out the facts and see what they do with them. If they internalize it, great. If they just leave them sitting there without addressing them, then perhaps it's time to make them start having to work through their ideas by putting them on a stronger defensive. But this is main point I want to make: Those facts must be there. And I'd like to think (hope) that this is what Phil was wanting to get at when he noted that "sometimes logic ... is left by the wayside."

When people review their position, they need to have the facts. And not just that, often people that don't reason themselves into a position won't know what to do with the facts they're given. So after giving the facts, we need to help people sort them out instead of just tossing them at people and walking away. Education is an investment, both for the person receiving and the person giving.

And that's the key to me. The line between being a "dick" and simply being strident is making sure that there's more than just name calling. There needs to be facts, and evidence, and the willingness to help someone sort through them once they realize they might just need to. And that investment is about as far from "dickish" as you can get even if there is a little bit of prick in the mix somewhere.

6 comments:

Chris said...

I know this is quote mining, but you say that for you, 'The line between being a "dick" and simply being strident is making sure that there's more than just name calling.'

To me, if one is name calling, whether or not accompanied by facts and so on, one is being a dick.

Jon Voisey said...

It's much along the same lines as the difference between an ad hominem and an argument which uses strong language. The former is one in which the attack on character replaces the argument. I have no problem with supplementing it for the reasons I described above.

Thomas said...

This is a very important point. In fact, i think this is too important to just to leave it to individuals to decide how to behave. Maybe we should start some kind of organization where people can learn how to be skeptical properly. We can print up tracts on how to proselytize - maybe break it down to 5 key points that we all agree on. Anyone who goes off message should then be universally denounced by the rest of the people in the club. Maybe then we can make sure that debate only happens according to proscribed rhetorical methods, i.e., perfect rationality and reason.

Alan B. said...

Jon,

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding you, but you seem to be saying that to tell someone, "Here is the evidence for why you are wrong," is somehow less forceful than supplementing that with saying, "You are a [fill in the blank]." I can think of no situation where saying "You are a [fill in the blank]," is ever useful.

Anonymous said...

We can print up tracts on how to proselytize

I'm not certain I agree with that. I feel strongly about this whole subject and did when I first read the posts Phil made. I think there's a very fine line. Yes, it is important to be able to be outspoken as a skeptic, but I'm also extremely wary of people, any people, who feel they must be out correcting the wrongs of others. That's what the faithful do. Having spent my entire adult life pursuing science, the one thing I'm certain of is that an absolutist stance tends to become inflexible and is bound to eventually get pushed over in favor of a better model. In adopting the same sort of absolute, correct-the-world stance as a missionary, I would become something I would rather not be. Claiming divine support from "the truth," even if you are a skeptic and believe you have the truth, just makes you another crusader who does not feel the need to back down.

I think there is some defense of the truth that is needed, especially on issues like vaccination... but if it comes to door to door prosyletizing, count me out: I would rather be in the lab finding out what the truth actually is. I think Phil has a very good point about science outreach and skepticism: it becomes just another crusade if the followers get to be fundamentalists and become inflexible with others.

Anonymous said...

We can print up tracts on how to proselytize

I'm not certain I agree with that. I feel strongly about this whole subject and did when I first read the posts Phil made. I think there's a very fine line. Yes, it is important to be able to be outspoken as a skeptic, but I'm also extremely wary of people, any people, who feel they must be out correcting the wrongs of others. That's what the faithful do. Having spent my entire adult life pursuing science, the one thing I'm certain of is that an absolutist stance tends to become inflexible and is bound to eventually get pushed over in favor of a better model. In adopting the same sort of absolute, correct-the-world stance as a missionary, I would become something I would rather not be. Claiming divine support from "the truth," even if you are a skeptic and believe you have the truth, just makes you another crusader who does not feel the need to back down.

I think there is some defense of the truth that is needed, especially on issues like vaccination... but if it comes to door to door prosyletizing, count me out: I would rather be in the lab finding out what the truth actually is. I think Phil has a very good point about science outreach and skepticism: it becomes just another crusade if the followers get to be fundamentalists and become inflexible with others.