Phil Plait’s talk at TAM 8 has generated a lot of discussion. He exhorts us to be diplomats, and asks when, in our progression from believer to skeptic, did we ever have our minds changed by being called an idiot. There’s a lot of merit to pointing this out and it is a really quite obvious point to make: why indeed be a dick? If being called an idiot didn’t work on you, why should you expect it to work on anyone else?
I am, by nature, reasonable and diplomatic. I prefer discussions to arguments and talking rather than shouting. If I am ever talking to someone about an issue where they are in the wrong, it would never occur to me to tell them that they are an idiot, as after all, the reasons why people believe weird things can rarely be reduced down to personal idiocy. People, if they believe in a religion, usually believe in the religion of their parents, not because they are intrinsically stupid people and Hinduism just seemed like a good idea to them one day. If someone believes in homeopathy, they probably know someone who has used it and vouched for it, or they tried it themselves because they saw it on a pharmacy shelf, took that to be a sure sign that there was something to it, and attributed their subsequent recovery to the use of homeopathic medicine. Believing weird things is a part of the human condition, and it takes a certain mental discipline and a skeptical mindset to be aware of how we fool ourselves and others. There’s not much that’s easy about skepticism. It’s hard to do, but deeply satisfying, and it is something that I want to share, so why would I want to be a dick about it?
Even so, there are times when dickery works. Such times are rarely going to be in face to face, personal encounters, but the notion that skeptics and atheists should always strive to be diplomats is wrong. That may not have been the point that Phil Plait was making, but here’s the point that I want to make: sometimes being a dick is necessary.
9/11 was a truly awful event. 9/11 also spawned the truth movement, a whinging, drooling shirt stain of basement-dwelling carbuncled teenage and twenty-something conspiracy theorists who believed that the US government was behind the attacks, that the towers were brought down with controlled demolitions and the Pentagon was hit with a missile. This truth movement was met head on by an active skeptical and debunking movement, one which had as its nexus the conspiracy theories section of the forums of the James Randi Educational Foundation. I used to spend a fair bit of time in the forum myself, in the mid-2000s, and it wasn’t the friendliest place to any truther that stopped by. But my point is that, as unpleasant as that forum was to visit for conspiracy theorists, it was effective. Its denizens picked over every conspiracy claim that came their way, and debunked it in no uncertain terms, leaving an extensive amount of material for inquiring minds to find. JREF members also joined conspiracy theory forums, taking them on directly, or at least until they got banned. The 9/11 truth movement was called out for what it was in impolite, intemperate language: the truth movement had zero credibility, and here were a group of people making that very clear. Sometimes, and this is the relevance, really, to what Phil Plait was talking about, the conspiracy theorists would come visit to try to argue their beliefs, and the conversation that ensued would often be, shall we say, less than pleasant. The members of the forum knew their stuff and defended the evidence strongly, often turning to ridicule. Of course some people would remain polite to a fault, but the overall tone of the site was far from accommodationist.
And it worked. Opinions were changed. By way of evidence, here are some comments from JREF members in response to the question: “What convinced you back from truther to non-truther?”
“The first chink in my armour was a forum called Protestwarrior, which I trolled at, and those guys just made me look like a chump…so I avoided dissenting opinions in order to settle my cognitive dissonance. Then the South Park episode…that lead me to Screw Loose change, which lead me here.”
“I expressed some opinions here and received some slaps in the face (some tactful, some not) with good plain information. But – having a good scientific background – I was able to see that at least some of the tripe I was pushing was just flat wrong. This gave pause for serious thought. Plus, here and elsewhere, I was beginning to find links to the debunking sites. Of course a lot of this could have been avoided simply by putting “9/11″ +”debunk” into Google in the first place, but I suppose the desire to believe in something wacky can lead one astray.”
“Once I saw Zeitgeist Addendum I thought I REALLY had it all figured out and tried to start a local Z:Movement chapter. It was then I thought I was equipped mentally to take on the skeptics, whom I thought would love the idea of the Zeitgeist Movement (a “scientific method” pseudo science based, godless society? What’s more to love? Right? WRONG!!!). So I took to JREF with all that I had learned and jumped into the skeptics Zeitgeist forums. I got pwned with questions I couldn’t even begin to answer and when I looked up answers to those questions, it was then I realized that it was all a silly utopian fantasy, sprinkled with pseudo skepticism and a Technocratic, communist-like agenda disguising itself as peace….”
Being impolite is not an impediment to successful skeptical activism. Challenging people directly can change people’s minds, and the tactic of challenging ideas with ridicule should not be kept out of bounds. Let’s say that someone was undecided on a 9/11 conspiracy theory, searched on Google for the term “debunk 9/11”, found their way to hundreds of discussion threads ridiculing 9/11 truth and then decided not to take the truthers seriously after all. Would that not be a success for skeptical activism? So why not use ridicule? Ridicule is an ancient and acceptable tool in the rhetorical arsenal. If Phil’s point is that to be effective, we must be polite and let reason carry the day in order to persuade, then I know the Ancients would disagree. There is more to persuasion than mere logos.
I’ll allow that it is probably true that more minds will be changed with politeness and a kind word than outright dickery, but sometimes anger and emotion, a rhetorical appeal to pathos, are essential partners in persuasion. P.Z. Myers is not the gentlest writer on the internet, but the emotion and indignation of a Pharyngula post can be cathartic, persuasive, and inspiring. Emotive, passionate argument is very effective at conveying the wrongness of the harm that results from giving uncritical thought a free pass. By presenting an emotional point of view with which the audience can empathise, one enables and activates a powerful method of persuasion. We are hardwired to feel emotions and to respond to emotions in others.
I don’t know if the New Atheists are as effective as changing an individual’s mind as would be a cup of tea and a bit of a chat with the local humanist group, but they do play an important role in discourse. There’s a lot to be said for discarding diplomacy and pushing the boundaries of debate. The US has constitutional limits on freedom of religion and the role of religion in the state, so why not test those limits? Go ahead and desecrate a communion wafer, or publish a cartoon of Mohammed. I don’t know that doing those things have persuaded anyone to give up their beliefs, or to become more skeptical about their beliefs, but such actions have pushed the boundaries of deference to religion and tested the extent of secular rights. Any movement needs the strident fringe as much as it needs the moderates, otherwise how else will it gain ground?
The one example Phil provided in the talk was of a conversation with a girl who self described as a creationist. She asked an astronomy-related question that revealed her reliance on incorrect information. In response, Phil was not a dick, pointed her toward a different way of looking at the question and recommended she expand her sources of information to outside the creationist literature. Apparently, after the talk, a number of the attendees – theistic skeptics – expressed gratitude for the message of the talk. Theism wasn’t mentioned, as I recall, but they took comfort from it nonetheless.
I get where the theists are coming from. Skepticism is hard. We aren’t wired to do it well, and doing it well can lead one to confront uncomfortable truths. I am deeply content now to live life without a deity, but I wasn’t at first. Losing god was a dislocating, wrenching experience, and one that I would not wish on anyone else. Nobody took faith away from me; I was cursed with a constant sense of curiosity about the universe, a curiosity that the religion in which I was raised could not satisfy. The moment when I truly internalised the implications of the second law of thermodynamics, the moment when I realised that there was no escape clause for my mortal soul, nor for my species, nor for anything in the entirety of the cosmos, that moment hit me like a bag of hammers. I couldn’t sleep for weeks. So I quite understand how it is that people in the skeptical movement can be deeply critical, rational thinkers, but at the same time also be theists, and I understand if they rankle at having their beliefs challenged by other skeptics, a discomforting experience for anyone. I don’t think that theism limits the effectiveness of skepticism, and religion isn’t an issue that I personally care about. I’d rather focus my energy on science denial, chiropractors, homeopaths and other charlatans than convince someone that there is no god. The same is true for most of the self-identified skeptics that I know; discussing atheism and religion is for the humanists. They care about it a whole lot more. That’s not to say that deistic skeptics don’t have a hard time of it. A Venn diagram of atheists and skeptics would show considerable overlap, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the topic arises, but then again, theists shouldn’t be surprised if they find skeptics want to challenge their beliefs. It’s a part of the skeptical condition.
Apart from moving me enough to write this post, Phil’s talk just didn’t really move me, as I guess I struggle to see where the problem lies (and he provided no examples). It’s obvious that a kind word and simple consideration is effective and appropriate most of the time, as that is how human beings conduct most of their discourse, most of the time. We really do tend to want to get along. Yet I believe that the skeptical movement is richer for having an argumentative, impolite JREF conspiracy forum, and it is richer for having a boundary-challenging articulate foe of all things religious in P.Z. Myers. Richard Dawkin’s documentary, The Root of all Evil, was so good because it wasn’t nice. Penn and Teller have a delightfully sweary show on Showtime called Bullshit! and you can bet with a title like that, they don’t play friendly with the subjects of their show. For the rest of us, indeed for most of us in the skeptical movement, being friendly, that is, not being dicks, surely that’s really rather easy. It’s just how we live life. Being a dick, and doing it effectively, that’s the challenge, and we are fortunate to have people who are good at it.
I remain unconcerned that skepticism will be tarred by association with the stridency of certain vocal skeptics, or rendered ineffective by discourtesy. Suffragettes turned to militancy, but women still won the vote. Black Power did not prevent the successes of the civil rights movement. And calling someone an idiot will not be the death of skepticism: at the right time, it might be just what the situation demands. That ‘idiot’ may not be le mot juste in a one-on-one conversation hardly needs saying, but in public fora, ‘idiot’ may be the perfect choice of word, and we shouldn’t be afraid to use it.