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Musings > Friday, 14 January 2011 04:52:52 EST

What Does It Mean To Be A Dick?

Keywords: video, uncertainty

I'm about half a year behind all the big discussion in the skeptical community on this.  I've talked about it a bit on other forums and the like, but have remained mostly silent on my blog.  There are a couple of reasons for this - first of all, I like to let ideas percolate in my mind before writing about them here.  Second, and probably more importantly, I prefer to avoid talking about things that every other skeptical blog is talking about.  So I feel like now that the talk over this issue has died down somewhat, that it's the perfect time for a dumbass like me to jump into the fray!

What I'm talking about is Phil Plait's infamous "Don't Be A Dick" speech.  I'll embed the videos at the end of this article so that you can have a look at it for yourself.  I personally thought that it was a pretty good speech, but I've found myself surprised at some of the reaction to it in the skeptical community.  It seems that people are just flagrantly misinterpreting what Phil Plait actually said, which seems extremely strange to me since Phil made a very big deal about writing out his arguments in very specific language in order to avoid misunderstandings.

The gist of the speech is that Phil is alarmed at how some people in the skeptical movement "do skepticism".  His message is that when you're practicing skepticism and critical thinking, that you should try and avoid being "a dick". 

So, what does Phil mean by being a dick?  Well, he was also pretty clear about that as well.  Phil said that he was concerned that:

Vitriol and Venom is on the rise

To illustrate what he meant, he asked the audience how many of them have ever had their minds changed because somebody:

called you an idiot, brain damaged, and a retard

I have to agree with Phil on this one - this is kind of dickish behavior, and I think it would benefit everybody if we make sure to avoid that kind of language when engaging in skepticism.

It seems clear from the rest of his speech that this is basically what he was talking about - he limited his definition of "dick" to people who basically used ad hominem attacks:

A lot of this discussion is not terribly productive.  A lot of it involves name calling.  A lot of it involves insults.

What I see is that hubris is running rampant and that egos are just out of check and sometimes logic in those situations is just left by the wayside

bitter, acrimonious, and irrational arguments

I've noticed some of what Phil is talking about myself.  I mentioned, for example, in my last podcast, a user named Markus0012 who posted a comment on this blog calling the alien believers "freaks" and questioning their intelligence.  While I very much appreciate his passion, it nevertheless makes me uncomfortable to hear that kind of attack.

I think what Phil's been noticing is kind of an undercurrent of hubris by people, many of whom may be new to skepticism and critical thinking, who are frustrated to discover that their rational arguments are falling flat against people who just don't seem to want to listen or understand. 

It's not a huge problem for the skeptical movement, just more of a small but disturbing trend.  All Phil was trying to do was to remind people to be civil.  This speech certainly wasn't, as some took it to be, a criticism of the skeptical community at large.  A lot of people seemed to get the idea that Phil was secretly talking about people like Richard Dawkins or Pharyngula's PZ Meyers, or even James Randi.

But, of course, he wasn't.  None of these people have ever, to my knowledge, written anything or conducted any argument in which they used blatant ad hominem attacks against their opponents.  They may be a little bit on the confrontational side of the scale, and whether their styles are for the best can be debated.  But I wouldn't call them dicks, and they're certainly not the type of dicks that Phil Plait was talking about.

Is this really a big problem?  Well, many have said no.  PZ Meyers has stated that Phil's speech was a strawman argument, writing that "there isn't anyone who fits that description in the skeptical movement."

Well, maybe not among the mainstream skeptical bloggers and podcasters, no.  But Phil wasn't making this stuff up.  I've personally seen examples of this kind of attitude numerous times, as illustrated by my encounter with Markus0012.  Perhaps people like me and Phil are making too much out of a non issue.  We might just be too sensitive to people who can be better handled by just being ignored.  That's certainly possible.  But I would argue that when we start seeing things like this pop up, it doesn't hurt to remind people that these are our opponents, not our enemies, and that ad hominem attacks have no place in logical arguments.

But as Phil mentioned, he was only bringing light to a discussion that had already been taking place in the skeptical community, and part of that discussion did involve some question of what it actually meant to be a dick.  The problem is that it's a somewhat subjective matter.  Some people seem to think that just being aggressive counts as dickish behaviour, and on this assumption have written defenses of the importance of dickishness.

I personally don't see aggressiveness as dickish behaviour, though it does seem to be the case that people who believe in nonsense do.  I mentioned in my last podcast the commenters who basically accused me of just this kind of aggressiveness.  While they didn't use the word "dick", I think they might have applied the word to me if they were asked.

And the thing is, I'm pretty tame.  My aggressiveness level barely blips on the dial, especially when compared to others.  I do some light mockery of pseudoscientific claims, and I try to have fun with it.  If people who disagree with me think that I have a bad attitude, I must imagine that the really aggressive skeptics are routinely accused of being rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth zealots.

So I can understand to an extent why some people would bristle at the implication that dickishness is a problem for the skeptical community.  But I don't think that we should let our opponents define for us what is, in fact, dickish behaviour.  I don't believe that mere aggressiveness and passion can be reasonably equated with dickishness, and I think that people who defend being a dick on these grounds are making the mistake of letting other people define the term "dick" inappropriately.

Phil said in his speech:

Don't confuse taking the high road with being weak and being passionless. It's quite the opposite.

It seems that many people still didn't understand him though, because this is exactly the type of confusion that takes place when we define the term "dick" so broadly that it includes people who are merely being aggressive in standing up for what they believe in.

I think that the word "dick" deserves a much more appropriate definition than that.  And while I'm just listing my personal thoughts on the matter here, and I'm certainly not trying to put together a comprehensive definition, perhaps I can suggest some criteria that can help serve as guidelines for thinking about what being a "dick" really means.

First off, I think that Phil's definition works very well as the core of what it means to be a dick.  Hubris and ad hominems have no place in rational discussions.  I think we can also expand that a little bit to include people who lecture people for their beliefs at the drop of a hat.  For example, if somebody says "I'm praying for your sick mother", it's probably best to just accept that as a well intentioned statement intended to convey sympathy, and not as an excuse to lecture on the ineffectiveness of prayer.

I also think that there are some people who will dismiss certain claims out of hand without bothering to even look at them first.  I believe that claims deserve to be given fair consideration before rejecting them.  If you don't have knowledge about why a specific claim is wrong, the fair thing is to say might be something along the lines of "I doubt that's true for this, that, and the other reason... but I haven't specifically looked into this claim so I can't say anything definitive about it."

The wrong thing to say would be "What a complete load of horse sh*t!".  I think that counts as a dickish statement.

Is this kind of behaviour ever justified?  Well... maybe, depending on what you're trying to accomplish.  I would say that this kind of behaviour is never justified if your purpose is to put together a rational and defensible argument.  Especially if you're interacting with other people who disagree with you, indulging in dickish behaviour is probably not going to get you anywhere.

But let's say you're alone with a like minded friend and you see something that causes you to turn to him and say "What a complete load of horse sh*t!".  Under those circumstances I think it may be justified.  Your purpose there is not to construct an argument or interact with an opponent, but to share a moment of disbelief and scorn.  Is that still dickish behaviour?  Maybe.  Or maybe the definition of "dick" relies heavily on the context, and private conversations don't count as being dickish enough.

And I would argue that the definition of what it takes to be a "dick" does rely on the context of the situation.  Being a dick during a debate encapsulates a different range of behaviours than being a dick at a party or being a dick to your roommate.  I think that you pretty much have to consider the context before you make a decision on what counts as being a dick.

If you want to check out a really interesting podcast that plays around with what it means to be a dick, check out Irreligiosophy, where co-hosts Chuck and Leighton are constantly insulting religious individuals.  I tend to think that what they do is okay because their purpose in insulting these people is not to construct any sort of logical argument or convince anybody of the errors of their ways.  Their intention, instead, is to express a moral outrage at what they feel are immoral individuals.  That's not an example of "doing skepticism", it's an expression of anger.  For this purpose, insults are very effective, and whether that makes them dicks or not kind of depends on how you look at it.  You can make your own decisions about that.

It's something that's very interesting to think about, and I believe that it would benefit from more consideration.  I've listed my own dumbass thoughts, and I hope that they provoke some more thought on the matter even if you don't agree on the specifics.

In the end, I think it's important to try and look at the general substance of what Phil was trying to say.  Basically, we should strive to be civil to our opponents even when they make it difficult for us.  It not only has a better chance of working in the end, but it also shows our good character and reasoning to anybody who happens across the transcript of the argument, which gives our side a better chance of appealing to the reason and logic of others as well.


Phil Plait's "Don't Be A Dick" Speech:









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