Don't Be a Dick, Phil Plait

The title of this post is supposed to get attention. I do this regularly. It creates hits. Try it sometime. But I also want to make this point. There appears to be a storm of controversy by skeptics weighing in on one side or the other about Phil Plait's talk, "Don't Be a Dick," at TAM 8 posted below. I only know that there is controversy. I have not read what people have said. I don't need to. Watch his 30 minute talk below. Then read what I have to say about it afterward.

Basically Phil argues that, (1) "vitriol and venom are on the rise" among skeptics against believers, and that, (2) such an attitude and the rhetoric that goes with it will not help believers change their minds.

Let's talk about the problem as he sees it (1). The problem as he sees it is supposed to be persuasive enough that he's justified in addressing it. As such it depends on whether his diagnosis is correct. To show this Phil needs evidence that it is a problem needing to be addressed. Yet all he offers is anecdotal evidence for it, that is, that which he has personally experienced. But that anecdotal evidence depends on what circles he runs in. What circles does he run in? I don't know. I confess I have not heard of him before (sorry, my fault not his, but then I don't know most things that are important). I presume the people in his circles know he's talking about them.

In the process Phil offended many people he was not talking to because they will falsely conclude he was talking about them, when he was not. For example, I've used the word "brainwashed" before, so was he talking about me? If I thought that he was singling me out I could get a bit defensive and even upset with him. "How dare he single me out like that" I could fume. But I very much doubt he's talking about me or even knows I exist, because if so, he could have used me as a good example of what he wants others to do. ;-)

Perhaps Phil was employing the strategy that "if the shoe fits the guilty should wear it." But such a strategy expects something that cannot be expected from emotional human beings. People almost always take things personally. Skeptics do not have a corner on rationality. I've said this umpteen numbers of times despite the fact that I wish it were not so.

Phil probably also offended the people who run in his circles if they are not persuaded by his case, and I don't see why they should as it's stated in the video.

That's why talks of this nature are not really smart to give if the goal is to make friends and influence people. Unless the speaker has the courage to name names, or unless he has more than mere anecdotal evidence that there is a problem needing addressed, he will always offend more people than he intends on addressing. In other words, "Don't be a Dick" Phil.

[Although, in one sense Phil was smart to give a talk like this if we remember that "even bad press is good press." After all, now I know who Phil Plait is and he's somewhat famous! So think on that you publicity seekers who use attention getting blog post titles. *ahem*]

Let's say Phil decided to convey this same message without coming across as a dick. How could he have done this? Easily. Simply don't point any accusatory fingers at a nebulous crowd. Instead, tell the audience about the mind of believers and how we should deal with them if we wish to change their minds with argumentation. Give examples of how best to approach believers. He did not need to accuse anyone of anything.

Now let's talk about (2) where Plait claims vitriolic rhetoric will not change the mind of a believer. Did you notice that some people raised their hands when Phil asked how many became skeptics because they were called an idiot? Phil seemed to ignore them for the most part. But does Phil know such rhetoric will not change the mind of a believer? Who knows what will change their minds? Richard Carrier previously wrote something about the use of ridicule that disagrees with Plait's call to uniformly cease using it:
By and large the minds of the ridiculous can't be changed. It's their flock we're talking to. But even the ridiculous change under ridicule some respond by getting more ridiculous (and those are the ones who could never be swayed even by the politest methods), but others accumulate shame until they see the error of their ways (I've met many ex-evangelicals who have told me exactly that). Thus, ridicule converts the convertible and marginalizes the untouchable. There is no more effective strategy in a culture war.
Ridicule in a social grouping does have it's effect because we are social human beings. There are some beliefs we can never argue people out of because they were never argued into them in the first place. Religion is one of them. So ridicule and social approbation do have their effects. It does indeed have a great impact on someone if all they ever hear is that a particular belief is stupid. Take a Flat Earther, for instance. Constantly have many different people tell him he's an idiot and this will cause him to doubt, even if we offer him no argument to the contrary. That's who we are as humans. We want to conform to the norm.

Now in his defense Plait may not be against all use of ridicule, but that's surely the impression I got from watching him talk.

The fact is that Plait falsely assumes something about the very skeptics he's talking to. He assumes the goal of everything we write and say is to reach out to the believer, even when we're speaking to other skeptics. Listen, the way I write and talk to believers is different than the way I write and talk to skeptics. When talking to skeptics it's okay to have a good laugh at the idiocy of some believers, okay? Sorry if believers just happen to be listening in, but I can't help it if they can read what I write or attend meetings where I'm speaking. Surely Plait has backed off that assumption by now, which, if he has done so takes the thunder out of his talk. We do not always write or talk to convince the believer. Sometimes we get so frustrated we have no other release but to vent. Sometimes we're talking to other skeptics in front of believers.

So where does that leave us? Where is Phil Plait correct in his "Don't be a Dick" talk? He's right on, dead on, spot on, about one thing that can best be phrased this way:
If skeptics want to argue believers out of their religion then when addressing believers skeptics need to treat believers and their beliefs with a good measure of respect and dignity.
This should be non-controversial I would think, once we grant the distinctions. If however, you don't think a particular believer can be argued out of his or her religion (and I've known plenty of believers like this), or, if you need to vent (which I've also done when totally frustrated), or if you are speaking to other skeptics in front of believers in order to encourage these skeptics, then what Plait argued for simply does not apply.

Please drop a few pennies in my jar on your way out. ;-)


Vic said...

"Simply don't point any accusatory fingers at a nebulous crowd."

My take exactly. Plenty of people take this approach when they try to not "point fingers", but they wind up insulting a large group that wasn't necessarily even being addressed. Phil believes he wasn't being vague in his speech, but giving a speech that's about negativity "in general" is pretty darn vague.

Mark Plus said...

The culture wars view of atheizing the population seems beside the point now, once you absorb the implications of Gregory S. Paul's research. Nobody in developed democratic societies had to argue their respective population out of their god beliefs. Religion has imploded organically, and totally unplanned, in these countries because of secure living conditions, including universal health care.

Basically most people don't have that much interest in religion for its own sake, but become involved in it as a form of magical thinking when they lack control over certain aspects of their lives.

JJR said...

My current favorite YouTube Atheist is Angie The Anti-Theist, who is currently ripping into Rick Warren's insipid book THE PURPOSE DRIVEN LIFE and I'm loving/enjoying every minute of it.

Angie is a cult survivor and the embodiment of a pissed off, angry atheist...but would Phil say she's being a dick? I'd say Angie, considering all she's been through in her difficult life, is fully justified in her anger and indignation. I'm going to keep cheering Angie on. Angie offered the insight awhile back that while believers generally won't respond to being shown that there's no good evidence for the existence of God, the idea that God might be Evil if he did actually exist DOES catch and hold their attention, and this is the line of argument Angie tends to pursue.

Re: Phil Plait (former head of the James Randi Educational Foundation--shame on you John Loftus, for not knowing!), I should note in passing that Chris Mooney pulls the same stuff on PZ Myers, but every time I've seen PZ unload on some schmuck, the target has been richly deserving. Mooney never cites a specific example that he disapproves of, he only speaks in vague generalities and deliberately avoids specific context. Instead, Mooney goes after strawmen.

You should also read ACA President and AETV host Matt Dillahunty's posts over at the Atheist Experience blog on Phil's talk...three excellent posts so far over there (two by Matt and one by co-host Russell Glasser).

Adrian said...

If someone is talking to me one-on-one, I would respond very badly to being insulted and attacked. It'd think the person was a dick and write them off. To that extent, Phil is right - we shouldn't scream in the face of individuals, but that's not to say that calculated dickishness doesn't have it's place.

When someone is publicly mocking a whole group or an idea, then I find myself getting very uncomfortable if I'm in that group. At times it's clearly irrational and I know it yet I can't shake the feeling. For example, some of the South Park or Family Guy gags involve taking a fairly random celebrity or band and calling them names. It works because it's so random, yet if I like that band I always find myself wondering "am I being foolish/silly for liking them?" People don't like to feel disliked, unpopular or reviled and I think this reaction isn't entirely conscious.

A more concrete example came from Penn & Teller's Bullshit. Their schtick is to take some topic they disagree with, parade some supporters and mock them mercilessly before putting a couple talking heads on to disagree. They don't do evidence, they don't do reason. What they do is Be a Dick and they do it well. I remember one they did on organic farming when, at the time, I thought there was some value in it and I was a tepid supporter. That episode really surprised & angered me but it really made me pay a lot more attention to the issue and I spent some effort looking for evidence and support for organic farming. You know what? I couldn't find any. Reluctantly I was forced to conclude that they were right. I can't say what would have happened without them but I can say that they were the impetus behind me changing my mind and much of that was because they treated the organic supporters as quasi-religious faithheads. In short, they were dicks.

And by now I think it has been shown by many people that Phil Plait often acts like a dick when it's appropriate. The key takeaway isn't that we should never use mockery or abuse, just that we should pick the right tool in the right place.

jwhendy said...

"Basically Phil argues that, (1) "vitriol and venom are on the rise" among skeptics against believers".

Maybe I'm the oddball here, but is this that far fetched of a statement as to really require some type of statistical analysis presentation? Most of us have spent enough times in blogs or forums to witness this. Heck, in just 8mos of participating in the "great debate" I've witnessed a large share of it.

While I see the point about a "nebulous crowd" tactic, I think you're right, John, in speculating about the approach, "If the shoe fits, wear it." Where I disagree is that saying, "People almost always take things personally" does not automatically defuse the situation. One could use similar tactics to justify the occasional punch thrown at work toward the a-hole co-worker because "People, when pushed, almost always want to inflict pain on their harasser."

I liked the talk and would say as someone in the midst of navigating this landscape that I'm both guilty but also hopeful:

- Guilty in that when someone says something I find ridiculous I want to go ape-shit on them. See THIS for an example.

- Hopeful in that I agree with Phil that this probably isn't the way to accomplish the goal.

One caveat: I think he's right in pointing out that the goal, itself, will determine what course of action to take.

- If the goal is to score points, then all is permissible. Believers are idiotic, stuck in dumb-f*ck superstition, and so on.

- If the goal is working with the evidence and arguments to try and help people to solid grounded evidence and arguments rather than being devoted to something false, then tact is probably a far better track.

In my extremely limited experience, tact can produce some great moments of understanding and let's both sides at least understand one another a little more and not see each as the enemy.

Derogatory speech begets the same and tons of posts on this blog and others become a spectacle of cheap shots for everyone else to follow along, all the while cheering, "Yeah! The guy on my side is f*cking that other dude up!"

If it helps in the slightest, THIS study could perhaps support the idea that when one attaches, "enemy" or "out-group" labels to someone, their brain filtering apparatus kicks in and they skeptically look for issues. When "common partner" or "in-group" labels apply, the brain lets in the information unfiltered and tends to be more accepting.

I love Carrier but in practice have not seen his statement bear much fruit other than pissing off my debate partner.

Just some thoughts.

O'Brien said...

"...once you absorb the implications of Gregory S. Paul's research."

There is a bridge I'd like to sell you.

Mark Plus said...

@ O'Brien:

Then how do you explain the social science data? As Paul says, the French die like everyone else, but about two thirds of the French population identifies itself now as atheist or agnostic.

O'Brien said...

"Then how do you explain the social science data?"

Gregory S. Paul is a dinosaur doodler, not a statistician, and his "statistical analyses" are amateurish at best.

As I commented previously, I wait with bated breath for Gregory S. Paul's groundbreaking studies implying ice cream consumption causes polio and violent crime.

Unknown said...

Skeptics/atheists get mad because people make us mad. Guys like PZ Myers (I think that talk was directed at him) get mad because "they" are trying to force religion in the science classroom. If ya spent your life fighting for scientific truth, I'd get mad also. Both sides should be respectful but humans get pissed when other humans piss them off.


GearHedEd said...


I just finished reading the whole exchange between you and Justin Martyr...

What a tool that guy is!

GearHedEd said...

Here's a thought about the "providential" occurrences, Hendy:

About a year and a half ago, my ex-father-in-law's new girlfriend (his wife left him, too!) had one of her adult sons visiting. But the transmission on his car crapped out and he left the car there in XFIL's yard.

Well, Bob (XFIL) wasn't pleased with this, and asked if I wanted the car. I looked it over, offered his girlfriend $400 for the hulk, and took it home.

I repaired the transmission and began driving the car around town.

As soon as I did this, I started noticing all the other mid-90s Pontiac Grand Prixs on the road.

Now, those other Pontiacs were always there, but I only began noticing them when I had some interest in them, being that I had one too.

Sort of like confirmation bias: if it tends to confirm your position, regardless of which side you're on, it should be viewed with extreme skeptical prejudice.

O'Brien said...

"Guys like PZ Myers...get mad because "they" are trying to force religion in the science classroom."

I believe PZ likes to be provocative and would be doing so even if there were less or no opposition to evolutionary theory in the U.S.

Gandolf said...


Tyro said.."People don't like to feel disliked, unpopular or reviled and I think this reaction isn't entirely conscious."

Maybe ? its like its almost religious.Fear that excommunication and shunning will be imposed on anyone found out to be far to different.

Early mans ability of survival was maybe very reliant on their ability of conforming to the social norms of the group.And then religion came along and came up with the excellent goods of God storys that through use of fear of hell or heaven,helped make these social norms much easier to impose on the whole group.Specially in later times when as knowledge of new technology grew and grew, that allowed humans to become less and less reliant on the group,something extra was then needed to help inforce humans to still have reason to learn to conform.

Tyro.."The key takeaway isn't that we should never use mockery or abuse, just that we should pick the right tool in the right place."

I agree with Tyro.

But even so, all humans do still make mistakes sometimes ,some humans will make more mistakes than others do too.Its cause we are humans and we dont have computer chips for brains,we all have also experienced many different situations and surroundings, have grown up many differnt ways, and become many very differnt people.

Phil Plait needs to realize people have many different personalities.

If the discussion is about something that many people might happen to feel is a very important matter.If people suddenly become intense and hyped up and get emotional and even angry.That doesnt simply always automatically mean that "vitriol and venom are on the rise".

Crikey often some parents lift their tone of voice and some even become totally beside themselves with emotion ,when maybe they find out their own kids got involved in theft or taking drugs or they might have got raped or bashed up or something.

Does this also mean the parents "vitriol and venom are on the rise".

Human use emotion as a way to help express their feelings.

Unless people really wish we lived in a bland expressionless world, where faces and voices and expressions all sounded much the same, like we were living in a church choir or something.

Learn to get over it.Of course people will often be differnt.

At present Pakistan has people whos faces look sad and many will cry and tears roll down their cheeks.There will be some who will get hungry and angry,and even shout and scream and shake their fists in the air.

If we had a world without any display of this emotion.What would there be left that would help us humans realize the importance of the situation at hand ?.

These people in Pakistan dont show emotion for no reason, there is good reason.

Surrounding matters of religion there is much emotion on display at present.We see it on blogs,and in the news on TV or in Newspapers.

Many faithful folks are devoted on charisma,often they just dont really "personally" like their serenity being messed with to much.Its not always easy to face the fact that just maybe there is honestly some matters that need very much more prompt attention.

But emotion is an important factor,its there to help let people know that other peoples lives also have some importance too.

Faithful folks are experienced masters at preaching and converting people to their line of thinking.And by jingos these people can sure also convert atheists to thinking "vitriol and venom are on the rise".

It wont be the first time they use their priestly conversion technique to help shift people focus away from the problem.

And once they acheive it .Guess what.They will be back explaining to those very same converted atheists, about how atheism is always bound to fail.

Gandolf said...


Dont let ourselves get F**ked up by devotion to charisma.It might seem terribly charasmatic to think just maybe all humans could all learn to be emotionless choir singers.

Hold on to your right to be different.Hold on to your right to think with your own brain and have opinions and make decisions yourself.

Its important.Humans have played the game of follow the leaders for far to long now.Its time we all start thinking more about matters,and learn to all become involved in decisions that are being made.History tell us its stupid to rely on the brains of others.

Its my personal opinion.

I may be right.I may be wrong.

Anonymous said...

If you notice my most recent post is titled "Lee Strobel, You Are Just Plain Stupid!"

I can do one thing then another thing in back to back posts if I want to. I don't see any inconsistency here. For in the Lee Strobel post I'm calling him out. One way to get someone's attention is to call him stupid, you see.

Hos said...

As a devout pastafarian, I have no intention of mocking or ridiculing anyone, when I praise Our Noodly Master and recite the "I-really-rather-you-did-not"s.

Samphire said...

John W. Loftus said...

If you notice my most recent post is titled "Lee Strobel, You Are Just Plain Stupid!"

Yeah - but not as stupid as me. A couple of years ago I foolishly bought his book. On a scale of 1 to 1,000,000 my stoopidity doesn't even register.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Plait should reconsider how he practically went berserk on Jenny McCarthy before he asks other people not to be "dicks". I have respect for Dr. Plait, and I absolutely loathe McCarthy and wish she'd drop over dead, but Dr. Plait very much defined the word "vitriolic" when talking about her and her nonsense.

I actually pointed this out to him, and that it wasn't helping his case any, and he insisted he wasn't doing anything wrong. He levied personal attacks against McCarthy, called her names and essentually textually frothed at the mouth. And now he has the stones to do this? Hypocrisy, Dr. Plait. Hypocrisy.

Perhaps I agree with his ultimate point, somewhat -- I do find some of the strongest ridicule distasteful and childish, and I can also see how it can be turned back against us in ad hominem attacks ("You're just angry and nasty, look!") But I don't think Dr. Plait has much of a leg to be standing on until he addresses his own previous behavior.

Dan DeMura said...

Even with disagreement I think you sum it up very nicely when you point out the strength of his message in this...

If skeptics want to argue believers out of their religion then when addressing believers skeptics need to treat believers and their beliefs with a good measure of respect and dignity.

I think a point he shared toward the beginning of his talk is key in our relationships with others... right or wrong in their belief, a lot of people find their identity in that belief. If this is true, then when the "belief" is questioned the believer will already feel they are being attacked. I agree with Phil that insulting remarks at this point will only add fuel to that fire... So his advice I think is sound IF your goal is to win the person through reason, and IF you wish to remain in a good relationship with this person.

At the same time I agree, every encounter is unique and there may be a time and place where someone just needs to be told point blank that they're a dumb ass.

To use words from my days of belief... Discernment I think is necessary.