Don't Be a Dick, Part 1: the video

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Aug 17, 2010
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[Note: As is obvious by the title, the article below contains mildly NSFW language.]

In July, I spoke at The Amaz!ng Meeting 8 in Las Vegas. Sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation, it's the largest meeting of critical thinkers and skeptics in the world. Unlike my usual talks about the abuse of science that I had given at previous TAMs, this time I wanted to tackle a much thornier issue: how we skeptics argue with believers of various stripes.

My first point was that we must keep in mind our goal. If it's to change the hearts and minds of people across the world, then at least as important as what we say is how we say it. And my second point was pretty simple... but you'll get to it around 24 minutes in. It's obvious enough.

Here's the video. The whole thing is about a half hour long.

Phil Plait - Don't Be A Dick from the James Randi Educational Foundation.

I'll admit I was pretty nervous about this talk, as I was basically telling people to be nicer. It's hard for some people to hear a message like that, and I knew there would be backlash. There was. I have heard from quite a few people about the talk, as you might expect. They fell into three basic categories: some agreeing with me, others saying being dick has its place, and still others who misinterpreted what I was saying. I'll post links to copious blog articles on all sides of this issue a bit later, but I want to clear a few things up here first.

Some people are claiming I was saying we need to be milquetoasts. That's ridiculous. I was very clear that anger has its place, that we need to be firm, and that we need to continue the fight.

Some were claiming they have a right to be dicks -- I'm bemused by this, as of course you have that right. But that doesn't mean it's most effective, or that you should be one.

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.

Perhaps I should have been more clear on what I mean by being a dick. I thought I had been clear, but a lot of people seem to think that I meant anyone who gets upset, or angry, or argues with emotion. I wouldn't include satire in that category, or comedic work, or even necessarily using insults; tone and attitude count here. Think of it this way: when someone argues that way do you think to yourself, "What a dick"? I don't; at least not necessarily. I think that way when the person belittles their opponent, uses obviously inflammatory language, or overly aggressively gets in their face.

Y'know. Being a dick.

Again, to be clear, I did not say we should back down when confronted. I did not say we should be weak against ignorance. I did not say we shouldn't be angry. I did not say we should be passionless.

In fact, I argued the exact opposite. We need our anger, or strength, and our passion.

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. In fact, though the basis of the talk was due to the degradation in tone I've been seeing lately (and I'm not at all alone in seeing it), it was also something of a confessional. Like most skeptics, at some points -- too many, I now feel -- in the past I've been a dick. I regret those times, and will strive to make sure they stay in the past.

So no, the talk was not aimed at any specific individuals. It was aimed at everyone, everywhere, and also inward toward myself. I cannot accuse others of that which I have not at the very least searched for in myself. And I have indeed found it in myself, which was the final factor in my making the speech in the first place.

I can't promise that I won't be a dick. But I will strive mightily to try. That's the most I can do, and the most I can ask of anyone.

[Note: There are two more parts of this saga coming up soon, including links to many and diverse opinions on what I said, and the talk's aftermath.]