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18 August 2010

TAM, Day One: Phil Plait

This is the eleventh in a series of posts discussing The Amaz!ng Meeting 8, which took place at South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, 8–11 July 2010. You can find the previous post here.

Phil's talk was controversial, to say the least. It's fairly easy to get the Internet riled up, and many skeptics have a tendency to be contrary at the best of times—but, all the same, I think that his point has been unfairly represented, in many cases by people who didn't attend (and thus were not privy to) the talk. So consider yourself warned: this post will contain more commentary than usual.

I'm going to jump right into my summary of the presentation before I get to the commentary and a brief discussion of the backlash that followed. Bear in mind that what I write is (as always) probably more of a reflection of what I got out of the talk than it is a real summary of the presentation, so if you'd rather listen to the talk in full (and you would), you're in luck! The JREF has just posted it, in its entirety, online:

Phil Plait starts us off with an apology (always a good sign): while he usually speaks off the cuff, this time he wrote the whole thing down ahead of time, because he's tired of having what he says misinterpreted. (Spoiler alert: it didn't help.) Typically, he talks about astronomy, but not today. Today, he is concerned by what he calls "some alarming developments" within the skeptical movement.

Skepticism is hard. ... How do you convince someone they're not thinking clearly when they're not thinking clearly?

Phil states that studies have shown that debunking claims will often later reinforce those same ideas. I'm sure that we've all seen this happen up close and personal, and several psychological papers have been published that bear this out.

No magic. No afterlife. No authoritative moral father figure in the sky. No happily ever after. This is a tough sell.

And it's made tougher by the fact that our society stresses faith. "Belief is the highest ideal," Phil tells us. "Clap if you want Tinkerbell to live." There is a smattering of applause, after which Dr. Plait gives the audience a wry look. "Congratulations. Because of you the Cottingley Fairies are still alive." Laughter.

"On a brighter note, homeopathy may be diluting itself out of existence." But at the same time, pertussis is on the rise and polio is coming back.

"Let me ask you this: What is the goal of the skeptical, critical thinking movement?" In some cases we need to debunk specific examples: specific bunk is worth debunking—but that's not what this is about.

Phil tells us that he's not here to talk about using the toolbox: he wants to talk about shop safety. He opines that rather than relying on the arguments, skeptics are becoming increasingly prone to vitriol and venom.

"Hubris is running rampant. Egos are out of check." The audience is told that demeanor is important. There are more believers than skeptics, and to be quite honest our brains aren't wired for this whole "critical thinking" thing. Even the best idea in the history of humanity is useless unless we can communicate it, and how we go about that communication will have a huge impact on whether it will take. Audience members are asked to think about times in the past when they have changed their minds. "It wasn't overnight," Phil reminds us, "and it wasn't because someone got in your face and called you an idiot."

Insults can start to fly for a many reasons, one of which is frustration. As Mary Roach said, "Anger seeks a victim." It may make us feel better to take out our frustration on a believer, but in chess, how often do you sacrifice a piece for the good of the game?

Phil Plait suggests that you ask yourself this: What is your goal? What are you trying to do? "Is your goal to score a cheap point, or is your goal to win the damn game?"

He ends the talk with two simple pieces of advice:

  1. Always ask yourself what your goal is. Is this going to help? Is this just to make myself feel better? Is this going to hurt my cause?
  2. Don't be a dick.

Winning hearts and minds is our goal.

Although some were clearly upset by what Phil Plait had to say, he did receive quite the ovation at the end of his talk. Hal Bidlack was clearly pleased, as he is very fond of the big tent approach. "You can be a conservative," he says, "and still not want people to have their memories raped and their money stolen by Sylvia Browne."

I talked with Phil Plait about his presentation, afterward. I can tell you that he was not proposing that everyone was doing it wrong. He said to me that he recognised that a diversity of voices is just fine, even important.

What we're talking about is strategy, and you need to figure out what you're trying to achieve. The point is that for any given goal there will be an approach that works best, and it will work best regardless of whether it gives you an adrenaline high. If you're trying to convince a person, telling him or her flatly that he or she is wrong is unlikely to work—it is much more likely to result in defensiveness and hostility to the ideas being presented. That's just the way our brains seem to function.

Full disclosure: Phil is another one of my intellectual crushes (I cannot begin to describe how excited I am about his new MythBusters-meets-Cosmos series, Phil Plait's Bad Universe), so if you think that you detect some bias in my reporting... well, that'll happen.


Don't be a dick. Wil Wheaton may not have said it first, and he may not have said it loudest, but for some reason I think that he deserves credit for it anyway. In any event, that was more or less what Phil Plait's talk boiled down to. Phil has actually been thinking about this topic for quite some time. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if you are (a) a skeptic and (b) a person with any friends, you have probably put at least cursory thought into the subject, as well. Here's what Phil said about it in 2009:

I sometimes have trouble in social situations because someone will say something that is perhaps not supported by reality, and I have wind up jumping right in. I don’t say they’re stupid or anything like that, but people identify with their ideas, so saying that an idea is wrong is basically saying they are wrong, and maybe even implying they’re stupid (or, more likely, they wind up inferring it).

Even when you try to be nice, some people are liable to take offence. That's okay—to some degree, it's inevitable. Steven Novella recently commented on this issue on Neurologica:

Where I find the conflict within the skeptical movement to be most persistent and unresolvable is in the personal choices that people make with respect to balances between the dictates of free speech and intellectual integrity (a consistent application of skepticism with no sacred cows) and the desire for courtesy, creating a friendly and collegiate environment, and presenting skepticism in a positive light.

Phil Plait is not unaware of the cloud of controversy that he's stirred up. Parts one and two of three planned posts discussing the aftermath of the talk are now available on Bad Astronomy. In part one he remarks:

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.

Yes. Many dissenters are framing this as a free speech issue, which it most definitely is not. Telling someone that their particular approach is counter-productive does not constitute censorship. Phil Plait is not suggesting that we should not be allowed to express our ideas in whatever manner that we choose—he is suggesting that we ought to consider the likely outcomes of what we're doing and weigh them against the outcomes that we actually desire.

Do I agree with him? Hell yes I do. In fact, I threw together a graph to illustrate the point:

What you should be doing is trying to accomplish your goal.

But it seems to me that sometimes "dickery" is warranted. There's room for both approaches, and picking your targets is important. When one is dealing with an individual true believer or with someone who is misguided or has been misled (a consumer of pseudoscience), I would agree with Phil that the gentler approach is more likely to yield the desired result. You probably won't get instant gratification, but more often than not it's about planting the seed of skepticism—it's unrealistic to expect the average person to turn on a dime.

But when one is dealing with a Deepak Chopra or a Sylvia Browne or a Kevin Trudeau (a purveyor of pseudoscience), it seems to me that the more aggressive approach is warranted. One is unlikely to convince these people (indeed, like as not many of them don't believe half of what they say), and turning them into rhetorical punching bags may serve a purpose.

So that's the line that I try to draw: I try to be gentle to the consumer of pseudoscience, but I get a little prickly toward the crackpots and confidence tricksters. Being a dick toward some poor sap who's been blinded by pseudoscience is probably not going to help anything.

But is anyone actually doing that?

Oh, probably. I mean, we're all dicks, sometimes. I don't really doubt Phil's premise, but I would have liked to hear a few substantive, representative examples of such discourtesy. I understand that he intentionally didn't single anyone out, but such examples would prove beneficial to ensure that everyone is on the same page. The problem, I think, is that "being a dick" is fairly subjective.

In terms of "vitriol and venom", I honestly haven't seen a lot of it firsthand. (Granted, I no longer read the comments on Pharyngula...) I've seen people being fairly blunt, but I think that that definitely has its place. I don't think that the phrase "God is imaginary" should be considered especially offensive, for example (and if it offends you, I quite frankly don't care), but it certainly is blunt. Then again, I'm skeptical enough to know that my personal experience doesn't generalise to the population at large.

One place that I definitely do see a lot of vitriol and venom is on the Internet, but it occurs to me that at least some of the perceived acerbity might be an error in interpretation. As my wife will attest, I often mount completely unsound ad hominem attacks on promoters of woo, but I think that the expression on my face and my tone of voice make it clear that these aren't meant to be serious arguments. But in a text-dominated format, such subtleties are difficult to express. When P.Z. Myers calls someone a "raving loon" (as he is prone to do), the tone that he intends when typing it may be anything from playfully chiding to incredulous to a barely coherent scream of rage. (Having spoken to the man, I think that the truth lies somewhere between the first two.)

At the same time, I do recognise that the impersonal nature of the Internet has led to some degeneration in the level of discourse, and that's even giving YouTube comments a free pass; people are willing to say things on the Internet that they certainly wouldn't even consider saying to another human being in person. Skaff Elias said it nicely on the Games with Garfield podcast (it was either episode 14 or 15):

The fact that someone's not going to leap across the table and punch you in the face—it's surprising how much that's actually a real constraint for people.

I have also occasionally been guilty of intentionally juxtaposing inflammatory content with straightforward, friendly delivery to draw people into an interesting discussion—this could easily be interpreted as being intentionally inflammatory. I'm thinking of the time that I cheerfully informed a coworker that I didn't believe that he had free will (not contra-causal free will, at any rate), or the time that, during a discussion about vat-grown meat, I asked my friends if they would try human meat if it were made readily available, hastily adding that I'd be delighted to do so (as long as some hickory-smoke barbecue sauce were ready to hand).

In some senses, I suppose that this would count as being a dick, but I think that it's mostly about startling people into thinking about things that they've never considered, before.

I'll give Phil the last word:

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.

For further reading on the subject:
P.Z. Myers at Pharyngula
Matt Dillahunty at The Atheist Experience
Ethan Clow at Skeptic North

And I'd especially recommend Team Skeptic's discussion on the most recent episode of Skepticality.

Finally, Phil provided a fairly exhaustive list of blog entries pro and contra his position in part two of his discussion on Bad Astronomy. And, wonder of wonders, I'm actually on the list! I'm the "Winnipeg skeptic" to whom he refers.

Years from now I'll be saying, "...and I knew Phil Plait before he was a TV star."

Edit: The discussion continues here.

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