Skeptics and parallel rationalist communities spend a lot of time on “inside baseball” — jargon-filled debates about technical matters that seem incomprehensible, dull, or ridiculous to outsiders. These shouldn’t be the main skeptical topics (shouldn’t we be busy solving mysteries and educating the public?) but some discussion on these matters is unavoidable and worthwhile. Many movement-oriented skeptics and organizations have things they hope to accomplish; with goals, there comes discussion of best practices.
Among these insider debates, none is more persistent than that of “tone.” Hardly a week goes by that some tone-related tempest doesn’t spill out of its teacup and across the blogosphere. And yet, these issues matter to many (including me). When people devote enormous energy to skepticism, dedicate careers to skeptical outreach, or generously commit volunteer hours or donations to skeptical projects and organizations, it’s natural that abstract internal debates about the soul of skepticism are perceived to have powerful importance.
The passions of many have been swept up in the ongoing scrap about Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” speech at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s “Amazing Meeting 8″ conference in Las Vegas. The skeptical blogosphere began buzzing even as Plait delivered the speech, and hasn’t yet stopped. The debate has reached a new level of feverishness in recent days, after Plait posted the entire video of the speech online. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s a powerful speech which is well worth your time.)
The flood of reactions — many hundreds of lengthy comments, dozens of blog posts and a teeming ecosystem of competing tweets — seem to have broken down along two main axes of debate. One axis defends (or challenges) Plait’s factual assertion that civility tends to help skeptical communication, while incivility tends to hinder it. The other axis concerns moral values.
Talking Past Each Other
The empirical dispute about the effectiveness of civility has sometimes devolved to a clash of straw men. As PZ Myers responded,
It’s a little annoying. Everybody seems to imagine that if Granny says “Bless you!” after I sneeze, I punch her in the nose, and they’re all busy dichotomizing the skeptical community into the nice, helpful, sweet people who don’t rock the boat and the awful, horrible, bastards in hobnailed boots who stomp on small children in Sunday school.
I can relate. I’m similarly exasperated when it is suggested that “nice” skeptics are trying to enforce uniformity; or it is imagined that Phil’s speech was secretly “yet another attempt to erect a skepticism-free barrier around theistic beliefs”; or it is supposed that anyone wants to take anger and passion out of the skeptics toolbox; or, even, argued that “nice” skeptics want to “go with the flow, to pretend that a thousand issues, whether it’s homeopathy or religion or transcendental meditation or an absence of critical thinking or a lack of concern about our health, are OK because they make people happy.” Where does this stuff even come from?
All this noise conceals a non-trivial amount of consensus. In general, everyone actually agrees that passion, anger, comedy, and ridicule can be useful in the right context, when used carefully and well. Everyone agrees that face to face conversations are best conducted with kindness and respect. Everyone (PZ included) agrees that fact-based, collegial discourse is often-but-not-always the best outreach strategy. (Consider PZ’s stated position: “I think the best ideas involve a combination of willingness to listen and politely engage, and a forthright core of assertiveness and confrontation — tactical dickishness, if you want to call it that.” To me, this sounds surprisingly similar to Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” argument: “Anger is a very potent weapon, and we need that weapon, but we need to be excruciatingly careful how we use it.”)
In other places, the effectiveness debate has bogged down in red herrings. For example, Richard Dawkins complained that
Plait naively presumed, throughout his lecture, that the person we are ridiculing is the one we are trying to convert. …when I employ ridicule against the arguments of a young earth creationist, I am almost never trying to convert the YEC himself. … I am trying to influence all the third parties listening in, or reading my books. I am amazed at Plait’s naivety in overlooking that and treating it as obvious that our goal is to convert the target of our ridicule.
This is a serious misreading of Plait’s intent, and I think rather baffling. Phil Plait is an experienced public figure, a career science communicator. Of course he knows (as I know, and as Dawkins knows) that our largest and best opportunity for outreach is often the wider audience of third-party onlookers.
Indeed, the audience of onlookers are exactly where the empirical question matters most.