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Activism, Religion, science

Don’t Be a Dick

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.

Ashley F. Miller didn’t like it one bit.

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.

Discussion

18 thoughts on “Don’t Be a Dick

  1. This is a tough lesson for me. You know why? Because I’m a dick.

    LOL–I can’t tell you how much I identify with that.

    I’ve been feeling masochistic lately, I suppose, for I went over to Theologyweb to debate Nick on gay marriage. Thanks for the article–I revised my last post after reading it.

    Posted by Ian | November 5, 2010, 8:11 pm
  2. Thanks, Ian. I figured that maybe if there’s no hope for me, maybe someone else can benefit from the advice. :-)

    Posted by hambydammit | November 5, 2010, 8:17 pm
  3. Eh. The problem with Plait’s speech was that he missed the point entirely; forthright, aggressive, even dick-ish atheist rhetoric typically doesn’t have the primary goal of persuading religious believers. That may not even be on the list. Rather, such rhetoric has the goal of getting fence-sitters and other observers who haven’t already drunk the Kool-Aid to see religious bullshit for what it is, and the equally important goal of normalizing forthright public criticism of religion and chipping away at religion’s massive sociocultural shield against any and all criticism. Of course, Plait’s extreme straw man characterization of dickish behavior didn’t help his case any. I think PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins were spot on in their criticisms of his speech:
    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/07/the_dick_delusion.php
    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/08/22/are-we-phalluses/
    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/08/22/are-we-phalluses/#comment-40191

    Of course, if one of YOUR aims is to reach out to believers — and clearly it is — then I agree: You have to stop being such a fucking dick. ;-)

    Posted by G Felis | November 5, 2010, 8:50 pm
  4. On a more serious note, here’s a way you really are being a dick:

    Hard line feminists think I’m a dick because I refuse to ignore the science and accept sex differences as primarily (or entirely) cultural.

    Extremely tendentious characterization of those who disagree with you is all kinds of dickish, my friend. I’ve argued this particular point with you before to no noticeable effect, but I’m bored this Friday evening so I’m gonna give it another go.

    Most science of sex difference fails on the most basic principle of scientific reasoning because it assumes in advance that any given sex difference being studied is NOT primarily or entirely cultural: Given that such vast swathes of human behavior clearly are learned, a scientist is methodologically obligated to treat the possibility that a given behavioral difference might be learned rather than innate as a competing hypothesis to be excluded or eliminated, not simply assumed out of existence. In other words, culture is the null hypothesis in any study of human behavior; if your “scientific research” does nothing to rule out the null hypothesis, it is neither science or research — it is ideology. I don’t recall a single study about sex difference I’ve read where I thought the researchers had done enough to rule out the null/culture hypothesis; I’ll grant that there are probably some methodologically sound studies out there somewhere, but I don’t think they constitute the majority by any means — and I’m quite certain that none of the sociobiology/evolutionary psychology research that seems to impress you so much makes the grade.

    Below I’ve cited the most concise summary I’ve encountered to date explaining — in devastating terms — why sociobiology/evolutionary psychology is riddled with bad science from the ground up. I don’t expect you to find it completely convincing, but at least read it and think about it:
    http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2010/10/why_do_women_shop_and_men_hunt.php

    Of course, sociobiology/ev psych isn’t the only scientific study of sex differences; there’s lots of sex research in psychology and neuropsychology as well. I’ve argued before that much of this research is tainted by various biases, both in individual studies and in the structure of science itself, especially the file drawer effect: It is simply not the case that every researcher who goes looking for sex difference finds it; but it is overwhelmingly the case that any researcher who doesn’t find the sex difference they go looking for can’t get their research published anywhere. (And never mind the fervor with which the popular media latches onto, spreads, and massively distorts any and all research which does supposedly identify a difference between male and female brains or behavior patterns.) But don’t take my word for it; there’s a whole recent book out on the subject (which is winging it’s way to me from Amazon even as I write), Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/24/science/24scibks.html

    You can call me a hard line feminist if you want — I’ll own it! But you know damned well I’m not one of those easily and rightly dismissed po-mo-jargon-spewing, “all truth claims are really just power plays” cultural constructivist asshats — so don’t lump me together with them. (That would be a total dick move.)

    Posted by G Felis | November 5, 2010, 9:40 pm
  5. “People dont care what you know until they know you care”

    Why dare to feed the stereotyping of Atheists as rebels without a clue? I have learned so much more about atheism by reading your blog with an open mind.. I never really saw the prejudice and discrimination against atheists until visiting your site. I research your positions as a challenge for me to see the other side.

    That being said, I cant resist being a dick when the opportunity presents itself… ; )

    Peace

    Posted by PG | November 5, 2010, 9:58 pm
  6. Most science of sex difference fails on the most basic principle of scientific reasoning because it assumes in advance that any given sex difference being studied is NOT primarily or entirely cultural

    The thing I can’t get past, though, is that when we study non-human social animals, there are often significant behavioral differences between males and females. Since we humans appear to be the only animals capable of second-order thought — and therefore the only ones able to “talk ourselves into” behaving a certain way, but we still seem to behave quite similar to “non-thinking” animals, that seems to lend strong support to the idea that there are real sex differences. That’s the thing that impresses me so much about sociobiology. As far as evo psych, well… all I can do is repeat myself. I try to espouse things that impress me only insofar as they sound reasonable. I don’t present them (or I try not to) as unassailable fact. Just as interesting and reasonable possibilities.

    The second thing that’s very difficult for me to get past is how much evidence there is for behavioral and cognitive differences in the sexes before culture has a chance to have an impact — on infants and toddlers. No, it doesn’t prove that gender roles as adults are definitely largely biological. But it casts serious doubt on the claim that it’s mostly cultural.

    Finally, I can’t help but point out the impact of studies in endocrinology, both in human and non-human animals, that have strongly supported the role of hormones in determining not only behavioral traits, but moods, attitudes, emotional volatility, etc. If behaviors, attitudes, emotions, and moods aren’t what cause gender roles, what could it be?

    And of course I know you too well to call you a hard line feminist. I use the term “hard line” to refer to someone who is so heavily invested in an emotionally charged conclusion that they don’t even consider evidence to the contrary, or explain it away as conspiracy. And for the record, I don’t think you can call me a hard line um… what’s the opposite of hard line feminist? Dick? I used to believe that gender roles were primarily cultural. Quite strongly, in fact.

    So if someone is not that kind of feminist, and gets mad at me, I guess I can only chalk it up to their cultural experience with the typical gender role of a sexist asshole guy. Not me. Cause that couldn’t possibly be me.

    Posted by hambydammit | November 5, 2010, 10:49 pm
  7. Rather, such rhetoric has the goal of getting fence-sitters and other observers who haven’t already drunk the Kool-Aid to see religious bullshit for what it is, and the equally important goal of normalizing forthright public criticism of religion and chipping away at religion’s massive sociocultural shield against any and all criticism.

    Of course. And I’m on that boat. Drinking the Kool-Aid. But Plait sure seemed to be talking about interactions with believers, not between non-believers. And I have yet to see aggressive maneuvers have any success with non-believers.

    I think of this website as a halfway home of sorts. It’s primarily for non-believers who want to be able to feel confident in their justifications, and to live comfortably as skeptics. But I also think of every non-believer as a missionary of sorts. The more of us who are good at talking to believers, the more believers will slip slightly and maybe accidentally consider an argument for a moment or two before praying and going back to church. And that’s a good start.

    We’re all surrounded by believers, and I think it’s a mistake to actively participate in the further separation of believers and nonbelievers culturally. That means we need to figure out how to talk to them and be friends without being dicks.

    Posted by hambydammit | November 5, 2010, 11:05 pm
  8. My biggest problem with Phil’s speech was that he wasn’t clear about what he was trying to say.

    I think most people agree that the best way to convince an individual you’re have a conversation with is to be nice and empathetic.

    That’s not necessarily the best way to talk to large groups, to talk motivationally, to get people who are closeted to come out, and, in some cases, there are people who do respond more to the dickish approach. I have a friend who entirely credits her faith being ridiculed for her being interested enough to see what all of the fuss was about. Anecdotal, yes, obviously, but I do think that different approaches work for different people in different circumstances. Most movements need all sorts.

    I just wish that instead of people being all like “Accommodationist” and “Dick” they’d be like “Reasonable diplomate” and “Understandably frustrated and honest guy!”

    Posted by ashleyfmiller | November 6, 2010, 12:50 am
  9. I just wish that instead of people being all like “Accommodationist” and “Dick” they’d be like “Reasonable diplomate” and “Understandably frustrated and honest guy!”

    I agree 100% with this. I’ve been on both sides of the aisle at various times, and seen reasonable degrees of success with both approaches. I just feel like there’s a widening gap right now, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Might be time for the carrot now. That’s all I’m sayin’…

    Oh, and if I wasn’t clear, I learned quite a bit from your reaction, and it helped me to think about what it’s like to be someone else. That’s a very good thing.

    Posted by hambydammit | November 6, 2010, 3:02 am
  10. Sorry, I’m a dick, and I’m proud of it.

    Posted by LM | November 6, 2010, 9:32 am
  11. Oh, and if I wasn’t clear, I learned quite a bit from your reaction, and it helped me to think about what it’s like to be someone else. That’s a very good thing.

    Thanks. Even if I’m not always right, I try to get people into my head to understand my thinking. So that is quite the compliment :)

    Posted by ashleyfmiller | November 6, 2010, 11:49 am
  12. There’s a huge difference between being a dick and being forthright and assertive but tactful. I don’t think Phil was suggesting that anyone stop saying what they believe or think, but that rather that they calculate their responses — and err on the side of politeness when there’s a lack of data.

    Posted by Nicole | November 6, 2010, 5:37 pm
  13. I think we have to be careful as to how we get our message across. It doesn’t help the atheist image that people think atheists are condescending and think they know everything when we act condescending and think we know everything.

    Also, we tend to not want other people be dicks to us. I’ve noticed that people who tend to agree that you should be polite seems to think they are excempt from it. They will reject the opponent as a dick, but insist that the opponent accept them when they`re a dick.

    I never really liked the atheist call to anger thing, I mean sure atheists by Christians are persecuted in America, but the opposite is true in China. So would a Chinese Christian have a right to be angry at atheists?

    Also, being wrong doesn`t mean you`re stupid, it means you`re wrong.

    That said, when we`re wrong, somebody pointing out we`re wrong can seem like a dickish act.

    Finally being a dick can contribute to us vs them and group dynamics which isn`t a good thing.

    “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friend?”
    ~ Abraham Lincoln

    Posted by cptpineapple | November 8, 2010, 3:49 pm
  14. I never really liked the atheist call to anger thing, I mean sure atheists by Christians are persecuted in America, but the opposite is true in China. So would a Chinese Christian have a right to be angry at atheists?

    Yes, they do. Anyone persecuted for a minority belief that doesn’t impact others has the right to be upset when they’re persecuted for thought crime.

    I think there’s also a difference between rhetoric, public speaking and one-on-one interactions. I think that a lot of times Atheists are accused of being dicks when all they’re doing is being honest. Almost anything someone says in support of an atheist offends deeply held sensibilities and is therefore dickish.

    I think the question is should atheists have to pull punches because theists are upset when we say they believe in an imaginary wish-granting friend.

    Posted by Ashley F. Miller | November 8, 2010, 4:01 pm
  15. I think the question is should atheists have to pull punches because theists are upset when we say they believe in an imaginary wish-granting friend.

    Well, there’s the rub, and I guess it’s what I’ve been dancing around this whole time. What constitutes “pulling a punch,” and what should constitute pulling a punch. Are we pulling punches when we hold hands around the table while the whole family prays, or are we being polite to our hosts?

    It’s kind of funny to me that the same people who get mad at us for being dicks are often the same ones who listen to Rush and Laura Ingram and Glenn Beck. But am I a dick for pointing that out?

    It’s tricky territory to be sure. That’s why I think it’s so important for us to explore ways to say what we need to say, but in the ways that will be most effective. That’s my goal — to find ways to stand up for ourselves and not be thought of as dicks. Probably a pipe dream, but it’s definitely worth exploring before we toss the idea aside, don’t you think?

    Posted by hambydammit | November 8, 2010, 10:42 pm
  16. If you are a non-believer, prayers are semantically null and therefore are a meaningless formality. Meaningless formalities are often the lubricant of life, like saying “thank you” when someone passes the salt. If people want to pray at dinner, I shut up and let them; it harms me not at all and it’s just mannerly.

    There’s no doubt I’ve had many theists be turgid dicks to me about their religion, and I find being told to “have a blessed day” incredibly irritating. But just because other people are sometimes jackwipes to me doesn’t mean I’m going to start behaving that way, too.

    But I’m not emotional about religion. To me, emotion requires faith, and I have none in either direction, so why waste the energy?

    Posted by Nicole | November 8, 2010, 11:50 pm
  17. Have you met Sam Singleton? Now he can piss you off? http://www.samsingleton.com

    Posted by Interested | November 9, 2010, 5:11 pm
  18. No, I had not been exposed (I think that’s probably the right way to put it…) to Sam Singleton. I glanced at a few of his pages, and I’ll admit, I can’t stop laughing long enough to be pissed at him.

    But I also suspect he’s not going to do a lot of convincing of theists, either. Which was sort of what I was talking about. In any case, thanks for the link and the comment. My day has improved with the addition of a hearty belly laugh or two.

    Posted by hambydammit | November 9, 2010, 5:23 pm

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