Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, gave a controversial talk at TAM this year. He entitled it “Don’t Be a Dick.” (View the whole thing HERE. It’s about 30 minutes.) His main point was two-fold. First, he articulated just how difficult it is to be an advocate for skepticism, science, and reason. It’s a lot easier and often more emotionally appealing to accept magic, gods, astrology, and talking to deceased relatives who want to help us have “closure.” It’s also very difficult to find ways to nicely tell True Believers that they’re wrong. Religion and credulity aren’t just hats we wear when it’s cold outside. They’re part of our identity. Theists see their entire life through the filter of a personal, loving deity walking beside them, carrying them through rough spots, and giving them emotional support when they need it. It’s pretty hard to lovingly tell them they’re wrong.
It’s also incredibly frustrating to be a skeptic. I’m hardly a powerful force in the atheist movement. I’m just a blogger in Small Town, Deep South U.S. But I’ve had to explain Pascal’s Wager at least five hundred times. It gets a bit tedious after the first hundred or so. When I’m talking to Young Earth Creationists, or Biblical Literalists, it’s extremely difficult to avoid the urge to just shake them and shout, “For the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, will you please open your damned eyes and look at the evidence, you idiot!?”
But Phil also made the point that getting mad or telling people they’re idiots has a very low historical success rate in any field. When we make people mad, we just reinforce their beliefs. They dig in that much harder, and defend their beliefs with that much more fervor. He admonished skeptics to “not be dicks,” and to find sensitive, emotionally appealing ways to gently nudge the credulous into a little more critical thought.
The entire speech was somewhat patronizing — here’s daddy figure Phil Plait telling us all to mind our Ps and Qs and not be so abrasive because daddy doesn’t like that. Pissed me off something hardcore having to sit through him lecturing me about being too mean to people. I felt the same way in a thread over on Pharyngula where people were saying women didn’t like how abrasive the skeptics/atheists are. It’s not true, I love it, it’s entertaining, it’s informative, it’s fun. I’m not a weak little girl, daddy doesn’t get to tell me to play nice with others.
It’s a powerful example of exactly what Phil was saying. Even if he’s right, if his audience thought he was condescending, or ironically, being a dick, they aren’t going to take his words to heart.
This subject is too important to ignore. Any competent salesman will tell you it isn’t what you say. It’s how you say it.
In 1984 Kahneman and Tversky performed some experimental research with results that proved the power of the question. The experiment asked participants to imagine that preparations were under way to handle an outbreak of a disease that was expected to kill 600 people. There were two alternative programs proposed to help the situation. In the first program, called “A,” 200 people would be saved. In the second program, called “B,” there was a one third probability that no people would be saved.
Next, participants were told two additional options were available. Program “C” would result in 400 people dying. Program “D” provided for a one third probability that nobody would die and a two-thirds probability that all 600 people would die.
What program do you think people picked? When you look closely, you’ll notice that Programs A and C are identical and so are B and D. However, 72 percent of the people chose the “sure thing” (Program A) over the “risky gamble” (Program B). However — and this is the key part — researchers obtained the opposite result when the question was framed the opposite way (C,D). (Covert Persuasion, Kevin Hogan and James Speakman, 2006)
We’d be fools among the foolish if we ignored this powerful message. The perception of “being a dick” is so powerful that even if we’re encouraging other people not to be dicks, we won’t be successful if we appear to be a dick! Even though our lack of success is proof of what we’re saying!
This is a tough lesson for me. You know why? Because I’m a dick. My first reaction in a disagreement is to bow up and get ready for a fight. I do come off as condescending fairly often, and I’m way, way too good at snark. This is especially bad for me because my two favorite subjects — religion and sex — are arguably the two things most people feel the most emotionally connected to. And I do not toe the Politically Correct line. Much of what I believe is offensive to a lot of people regardless of the context in which I say it.
Hard line feminists think I’m a dick because I refuse to ignore the science and accept sex differences as primarily (or entirely) cultural. Religionists think I’m a dick because I attribute their mystical experiences to simple misfirings of the limbic system. Lots of people from all walks of life think I’m a dick because I accept and even embrace the fact that humans aren’t meant for lifetime monogamy, or even necessarily social monogamy. Hard line humanists think I’m a dick because I don’t recognize or value the doctrine that humans are special in any way, or even intrinsically valuable.
But this is a journey for me. That is, as much as Life Without a Net is designed to help other people, it’s also a way for me to help myself and to document my growth. When I first started my internet campaign about religion, I was a LOT more antagonistic than I am now. (Alison, would you care to back me up on this one?) My avatar was an angry cat with a machine gun. I often resorted to very calculated jabs that couldn’t quite be labeled ad hominems, but were definitely not neutral, either.
Like a lot of people who were once young, I’m not proud of some things I did and said when I was younger and more impulsive. When I read some of my earliest online discussions, I cringe from time to time. Not because I was wrong, but because I was right, and I was being a dick about it.
The thing is, I have a goal that makes it very difficult for me to continue letting my inner dick slap people around. I want to help make other people’s lives better. I believe that the best way to do that is to help them understand and embrace the realities of both the cosmos and what it means to be human. That’s what I’ve done, and I’m happier for it. So I’m trying to facilitate other people making the same journey as me. But a lot of my beliefs — which I take great pains to base on real science — are not politically correct, and many of them are just downright threatening. So… I owe it to myself to not be a dick as often as I can manage it. If I want to have any success at all.
Unfortunately, it gets worse. As I’ve looked over several of my posts that have created the most controversy, and gotten me the most accusations of being a dick, I’ve noticed something really scary. Whichever side I take on a controversial subject, someone on the other side will think I’m a dick for doing so. In some ways, discussing something controversial is the equivalent of being a dick.
As an example, I watched Phil’s speech in its entirety, and not once did I feel like I was being patronized, or that he was being condescending. Quite the opposite, in fact. I thought it was a very even-handed and often overly polite exposition. I thought he could have stated his case more fervently and still been well within the bounds of appropriateness. But then (at the risk of a little long distance psycho-analysis) I’ve never been a girl who had to deal with the perception of being a “weak little daddy’s girl” at all. So it never occurred to me that the exact same speech could be perceived entirely differently by someone in that position.
So what’s the moral of the story? I’m not sure, exactly. One of my life goals is to not be a dick so much. But the only thing I can do is go into any situation with empathy and do my best to say things in ways that will resonate with my target audience. I can go in honestly and openly, without hidden agendas. But even when I do all these things, I’ll offend some people. And I won’t always find the best ways to say things. Five to seven blog posts a week is a lot of writing, and some days I’m more tired than others, or sick, or hung over, or stressed about something that’s going on in my life.
When someone calls me a dick, I do my best to understand why. Sometimes, I do the all-to-human thing and respond defensively. But usually, once I cool down and think about it from their perspective, I can understand why they think I’m a dick, and even if I don’t agree with their judgment, I get it. I guess in the end, that’s all we can ever do — try to “get it” from other people’s point of view.
So I think that’s where I stand on Phil’s speech. I think he’s basically right. Whatever it is we’re trying to sell, we’ll do better if people perceive us as likable, empathetic, and real. It’s very tough to accomplish that when we’re on opposite sides of dichotomous issues, like sexuality and religion. But I’m going to continue to try to find effective ways to communicate. I hope more people on both sides of all the issues can join me in this quest.