OK! Fine! I’ll Talk About “Don’t be a Dick”!

I’ve been reading a lot of the back and forth about Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a Dick” talk at TAM. So far I’ve avoided commenting on it since it seems that everyone else already has and I suspect that whatever I have to say will be 1) redundant; 2) loved by those who agree with me and hated by those who don’t, so I won’t persuade anyone anyway; and 3) because I hate doing what everyone else does just because everyone else is doing it. The only reason I’ve never seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show is not because I haven’t wanted to see it, but because that’s all everyone else ever did and talked about.

But (and I’m sure you can guess what’s coming) I’m going to comment on DBAD anyway. But I’m going to do it because it is a topic that has concerned me since I first started out writing this blog and something that I’ve gone both ways with in my own writing here.

Phil’s main point was that there is no reason to engage in ridicule of our intellectual opponents because we are trying to win hearts and mind, not just arguments, because doing so weakens our position by making us come across as, well, dicks.

In a discussion recently with D. J. Grothe and others at the Midwest Humanist Conference, the members at our dinner table seemed to come to the consensus that ridicule has its place, but should probably be avoided in most cases.

The DBAD concept was touched on by several speakers at that conference, most of whom seems to agree that we need to make our arguments on the evidence, but that ridicule, especially in the form of satire and humor, can be a very effective tool.

My personal approach is that I always think carefully about what effect I am trying to have in any argument or debate. While I tend to try to avoid offending people, mainly because that’s just my nature, I think there are times when shock can be very appropriate and effective.

For example, the pedophilia issue in the Catholic church and, especially its handling of it, is such an affront to human decency and so completely depraved and immoral, that I shocked my friends and my wife by calling the Pope a misogynistic, homophobic, anti-semitic, pedophile-protector. But, I felt that nothing less was warranted given the magnitude of the abuse, not only of children, but of trust and power.

As skeptics, we are taught to avoid logical fallacies, such as ad hominem attacks, where you attack the person instead of their arguments. This is my biggest reason for not supporting ridicule of opponents because it often takes this form.

But, even here, I can see situations where personal ridicule could be warranted, but I think several conditions need to be met first.

  1. That person’s arguments must first be properly argued against using evidence and logic.
  2. That person must show no signs of wanting to engage in an open, honest debate on the evidence and logic of the arguments.
  3. That person must have a history of engaging in all of the normal logical fallacy filled tactics that we have come to know from the supporters of woo and ideologically motivated thinking.
  4. Finally, even though it is probably obviously the case, they should show all the signs of being an idiot. This last step isn’t really required. Usually if they have met two and three, they are idiots anyway.

In conclusion, I’d suggest being professional, respectful of the humanness of the person that you are arguing with, use evidence and logic, and always stay calm and collected.

And, if you do find the overwhelming need to call them an idiot, or worse, please make sure you do it calmly and with a smile.

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