The Dawkins/Plait Dilemma


On Wednesday night, DJ Grothe posted the following quote from Richard Dawkins on Facebook; “Atheists should not be abusive of believers. Instead, we should ridicule them.”.  I do not know the context of this quote and I would appreciate it if anyone who was actually there could expand on it. Dr. Dawkins said this during his interview with Michael Shermer at an event at Cal Tech.

As a stand-alone comment it, bring up an issue that has had many people in the skeptical community at odds for some time now.

Does ridicule really work?

At TAM 8 this past July, Phil Plait gave his now famous “Don’t Be A D!ck” speech. He posed the following question, asking for a show of hands, “How many of you came to skepticism because someone called you a moron?” A few people did raise their hands in the affirmative but it was a very small group.

His point was that when people feel they are being insulted, they tend to shut out logical arguments and revert to a defensive stance. Nobody enjoys being ridiculed for beliefs whether they are deeply held or not. Usually what happens is the person who feels insulted and attacked ends up clinging to that belief even harder than before. They also walk away with the idea that all skeptics are jerks. No one wins in that scenario.

The attitude that believers should be ridiculed is divisive and harmful to our cause as a group. If the goal is to build and expand our skeptical community, using Ad Hominem attacks only drives potential skeptics away.

Instead, we as a group need to consider the possibility that the person you are getting ready to call a moron may not ever have been exposed to critical thinking. Their ideas seem perfectly plausible to them because they may not have been taught that what they saw was really a weather balloon or that there is such a thing as sleep paralysis. They may not know what pareidolia is or that the autonomic nervous system makes them twitch when they’re dowsing for water.

Education is the answer, not ridicule. Asking someone “Have you thought it could be this?” instead of calling names is so much more productive. Engage them in conversation about their belief. Pose questions that will get them to think about other possible answers and then let them come to their own conclusion. Sometimes they come back later and thank you.

That being said, ridicule does have a place. Using humor to diffuse a tense situation can point out the ridiculousness of a belief. A joke has the potential to plant seeds of doubt in someone who is ready to hear it. A wonderful example of using humor to ridicule a belief can be seen here where people at this year’s ComicCon put on a counter-protested against the Westboro Baptist. Church protestors.

Penn & Teller have also had success with an In-Your-Face approach on their Showtime program, Bullshit. That show is one of the reasons I’m a skeptic. They have a no-nonsense tack to pseudo science and quackery. They also use tastelessness and humor to diffuse a tense situation. But lets face it; their approach is much more like a kick to the groin than a pat on the back. It can be (and has been) off-putting to viewers whose beliefs have been called into question. The difficulty with a TV show is that, aside from the P&T message boards, there is no one there to answer questions that might crop up during the show.

While the ridicule approach does have a minimal level of success, when we go after the idea and not the person, we have the potential to create a meaningful dialog where change actually has the potential to take place.

Take the time to understand, also, that everyone is at a different point in the exploration of skepticism. We’re overcoming millions of years of evolution by learning to think critically. Our brains simply aren’t wired that way. Learning new ways of thinking is difficult and when cognitive dissonance enters the picture, there can be actual, physical discomfort along with the emotional and mental stress of walking away from long-held beliefs.

Patience, education and humor are tools that we might consider adding to our skeptical toolbox. It takes patience to educate people who have not been exposed to or are new to critical thinking. Have a strategy in mind before engaging in a debate over a belief. George Hrab has an excellent one. When confronted with pseudoscience, he asks, “Really? And how does that work?”. Engage them. Get them to explain the belief. Asking for an explanation gets the person to think about what they are proposing especially if you gently point out other possibilities by asking “What if…?”. You probably won’t get them to change their mind during the discussion and that shouldn’t be the goal. Even though you’re probably right, this isn’t about being right.  It’s about planting a seed.

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39 Comments

  1. Bret said,

    October 7, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    I also agree with the idea that belief, not people, should be ridiculed. Though, people hold on to their belief so strongly that they see an attack on a treasured belief as an attack on their person. I think this idea is the first idea that should be changed in order to make a difference.

  2. Kergillian said,

    October 7, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    Why use ridicule? Because it works.
    No matter how logical or rational your argument is, there are some people you will never convince. No amount of evidence, reason or logic will ever convince Ray Comfort that evolution is true. But by exposing his flawed arguments to ridicule we may convince someone else. Thunderf00t’s YouTube video series “Why Do People Laugh at Creationists” is a perfect example. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BS5vid4GkEY
    The object of he series isn’t intended to convince “True Believers”, but rather expose those who might fall victim to creationist woo to the ridiculous BS that creationists spout.

    • October 7, 2010 at 2:17 pm

      If you read the article, you’ll see that I’m talking about the everyday believer and how we as skeptics treat them. Comfort and his ilk have already reached their conclusion. But by treating other believers like morons we create an image that we think we are superior and we end up come across as assholes. That doesn’t win over anyone. My article clearly talks about educating the average person. The quote DJ put up from Dawkins was seemingly. directed at ALL believers.

      • Kergillian said,

        October 7, 2010 at 7:08 pm

        I did read it, twice.
        However, both times I seem to have missed a key paragraph:

        “That being said, ridicule does have a place. Using humor to diffuse a tense situation can point out the ridiculousness of a belief. A joke has the potential to plant seeds of doubt in someone who is ready to hear it. A wonderful example of using humor to ridicule a belief can be seen here where people at this year’s ComicCon put on a counter-protested against the Westboro Baptist. Church protestors.”

        So, that said, I think it’s also fine to ridicule certain individuals who through dishonesty, idiocy, or pure underhandedness have earned it. Ray Comfort, Sylvia Browne, Kent Hovind, and John Edwards SHOULD be mocked. They should be exposed as the dishonest frauds they are.

  3. Kergillian said,

    October 7, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    I’m aware of that. I agree you shouldn’t treat rational people as morons, so long as they are rational. I’ll go further to say not only should you not treat them as morons, but you should be as willing to learn from them as well as educate them. My point (and I did not make it well before) is that it takes many different types of arguments and different approaches to get the message across. When dealing with a rational person, ridicule is not the best tactic. In fact it’s just as important to be open, understanding, considerate and to really listen and learn. When dealing with someone who won’t listen and who won’t engage in a two-way discourse, ridicule is appropriate. You can’t treat all believers the same way. For rational people education IS the answer. But it’s not the answer for every person. We need both diplomats and bulldogs.

  4. October 21, 2010 at 7:39 am

    […] I also try to follow Wil Wheaton and Phil Plaitt’s motto: Don’t be a dick. But then I have been told by a number of people, including James Randi, that I am nice. While I take that as a complement, it is also a flaw. Sometimes I’m TOO nice. The question them becomes, “Where do we draw the line?”. Of course I have no tolerance whatsoever for Fred Phelps and the Westboro ilk. I don’t think that sort of bigotry SHOULD be tolerated. I’ve talked about this recently in “The Dawkins/Plaitt Dilemma”. […]

  5. latsot said,

    October 24, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    I first came across this article when it was posted on the JREF Swift feed then later deleted. I wrote about it unflatteringly at the time and my conclusion was that I’m glad the JREF didn’t publish it because it was seriously lacking in skeptical analysis. For example:

    “Usually what happens is the person who feels insulted and attacked ends up clinging to that belief even harder than before. They also walk away with the idea that all skeptics are jerks. No one wins in that scenario.”

    There’s a hell of a lot there that needs some serious evidence to back it up. Usually? People feel? And then cling to? And then form a lasting opinion? And nobody wins?

    Each of these claims requires some evidence if we’re to remain skeptics. fledgelingskeptic offers none and doesn’t even seem to realise that any is needed.

    There are plenty of other examples. For example:

    “While the ridicule approach does have a minimal level of success, when we go after the idea and not the person, we have the potential to create a meaningful dialog where change actually has the potential to take place.”

    Minimal level of success? Meaningful dialog? Change?

    What do those things mean?

    And where’s your evidence?

    http://lookatthestateofthat.blogspot.com/2010/10/i-r-doin-it-rong.html

    • October 26, 2010 at 10:08 pm

      There is significant statistical evidence to back up my premise. Read Carol Tavris’ book “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). Her book discusses multiple studies to back up what I’m saying. “Minimal level of success” means that the “Dick” approach only works in a small percentage of cases (refer to the above) “Meaningful dialog” refers to an exchange of ideas. “Change” means to make different or cause a transformation.

      Any other questions?

      • latsot said,

        October 28, 2010 at 12:23 pm

        Hi Maria,

        A reference in an obscure book doesn’t constitute evidence. What is it evidence *for*? What was the hypothesis? And how did the stuff in the book contribute to that hypothesis?

        But rather than point me at books I won’t have time in the short term to read, why not describe some of the arguments? Why not describe exactly how the book points out that niceness is automatically better?

    • latsot said,

      October 28, 2010 at 12:35 pm

      Also, you have every opportunity to answer my questions and you haven’t.

      Aren’t they good questions? If they aren’t, why not?

      Why won’t you answer them?

      • November 4, 2010 at 10:51 am

        I’m more than a little busy prepping for a trade show this weekend and working on improvements for my non-profit. Yes, you have raised a valid point though I hardly think the book I referenced was obscure since the author spoke at TAM this year. Give me a little more time. I need to look through studies on PubMed and Quackwatch. I WILL answer your questions, but right now my real life has be strapped to a rocket sled.

      • latsot said,

        November 4, 2010 at 11:36 am

        “I need to look through studies on PubMed and Quackwatch. ”

        Why?

        You already made a bunch of assertions. Are you now saying those were unfounded? If so, why did you say such unfounded things? If not, why don’t you already know what justification you have for your assertions?

      • November 21, 2010 at 5:32 pm

        Why? Because I wanted to give out accurate information.

        This post was not meant as a dissertation. But it WAS based on my anecdotal observations. People have emailed me privately about this topic, thanking me for my approach. After a weekend at SkeptiCon, I’m guessing I’m kind of an accomodationist.

        Skepticism is a tool but it doesn’t have to be a jackhammer.

        I am also in the process of researching the psychology behind beliefs and why people cling to them so tightly when confronted. So far Quackwatch has been useless for this purpose and PubMed more with biology so it is going to take me a while while trying not to cherry pick.

        I CAN tell you this much: Our brains are evolutionarily hardwired towards beliefs. Here is one small example of that: http://pewforum.org/Science-and-Bioethics/How-Our-Brains-are-Wired-for-Belief.aspx Critical thinking is not something that is instinctual.

        While I’m doing my research, I would love to see the evidence for your position.

  6. latsot said,

    November 4, 2010 at 11:30 am

    “Give me a little more time.”

    I didn’t mean to imply that there was a time limit, sorry for being so pushy.

    However, all I wanted was a paragraph or so summarising the arguments in favour of this position. You could presumably summarise some of the arguments in the not-obscure book in about ten minutes. They wouldn’t be YOUR arguments, they’d be what the book said, so you wouldn’t have to spend time defending them too closely. Everyone wins!

    How long would it take to summarise the argument you consider fairly watertight? Five minutes? Two hours?

    I invite you to split the difference. Take a few minutes explaining the argument that’s so apparent to you based on the evidence you know so well. Then, when you have time, you can present the evidence itself.

    I’m sure you can scrape together a few minutes for phase one.

  7. latsot said,

    November 23, 2010 at 9:10 am

    “This post was not meant as a dissertation. But it WAS based on my anecdotal observations.”

    And yet – and this was my entire point – you said some things were true when there’s no way you could know whether they were true or not. You claim there’s evidence that rude, horrible people like me set back the cause of skepticism and you claim there’s evidence and then…..you fail to produce it.

    “Education is the answer, not ridicule.”

    Is it? Why? How do you know?

    “Asking someone “Have you thought it could be this?” instead of calling names is so much more productive.”

    Is it? Why? How do you know?

    “Why? Because I wanted to give out accurate information. ”

    You avoided the point, which was why you made assertions in the first place without being able to back them up. If your response is “well, I need to look stuff up” then you have failed at skepticism. You should have started with the evidence, not looked for evidence that backed up your assertions. UR DOIN IT RONG.

    “People have emailed me privately about this topic, thanking me for my approach.”

    Well done. Take a look at Ray Comfort’s blog. People think his approach is great too. So what?

    “Skepticism is a tool but it doesn’t have to be a jackhammer.”

    No, but I rather think it does have to be a scalpel. That’s how I’ve used my skepticism against your original post. Accusing me of using a hammer is a silly strawman. You’d do better to answer my actual questions.

  8. latsot said,

    November 23, 2010 at 9:22 am

    “While I’m doing my research, I would love to see the evidence for your position.”

    Um. My position? What do you think my position is? And why would you imagine it needs evidence?

    Assuming you are talking about the accomodationist/annoyingist debate, I have no evidence at all that my approach is better than yours in any way we might define ‘better’.

    But I’m not the one telling other people how they should behave.

    Be an accomodationist if you like. I don’t think anyone has an issue with that point of view. But stop telling people who don’t agree with you that they aren’t helping unless you have some evidence. Which you don’t. Obviously.

    • latsot said,

      November 23, 2010 at 10:56 am

      I hope you don’t mind if I say this again:

      You have ABSOLUTELY NO EVIDENCE that being nasty to religion is harmful to the skeptical movement, but you assert it as a fact anyway.

      Is this right?

      If it isn’t right, cite proper evidence for that exact position. Not anecdotes. Not stramanical demands that someone else dedend a different position: actual evidence that being nasty to religion makes it more difficult for people to be skeptical.

      OK, that’s not particularly fair. Let’s restrict it to your actual statements. Can you justify them or did you just make them because you felt they ought to be true?

      • November 23, 2010 at 12:01 pm

        Oh SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT!!! It’s fixed. I am SO friggin sorry!!! You have no IDEA how sorry I am. I thought I was replying to what you said and saying in public that you were right. That, thanks to my own confirmation biases, i was feeling attacked and that I WAS doing it wrong.

        The original post was written out of emotion and not from an actual skeptical point of view.

        I am SO SO Sorry!!

      • latsot said,

        November 23, 2010 at 1:25 pm

        What the fuck, Myra?

        Lovely of you to publish my IP and email addresses.

        Fuck you.

  9. latsot said,

    November 23, 2010 at 11:09 am

    Sorry, I really don’t want to seem like I’m having a go, but;

    “I CAN tell you this much: Our brains are evolutionarily hardwired towards beliefs”

    You can tell me that as much as you like, but it wouldn’t be true. That article says no such thing. Do you genuinely think it does? I mean, really?

  10. latsot said,

    November 23, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    It’s not enough for Maria to be completely wrong.

    She was so wrong that she decided – for no reason I can understand – to publish my email and IP address.

    This was completely uncalled for. What a poisonous person you are, Maria.

    • Bret Hall said,

      November 23, 2010 at 7:01 pm

      What evidence do you have that she did so intentionally? I thought you were the one speaking out against arguments from emotion.

      • latsot said,

        November 24, 2010 at 8:52 am

        I was wrong.

  11. November 23, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    What??? Where did I do that?? Jesus man! I don’t DO shit like that intentionally! Tell me where I fucked up and I’ll fix it!

  12. latsot said,

    November 23, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    What? It is right here on this page. My IP address and my email address which, by the way, I was told would not be published.

    Fixing it is a bit fucking late now, isn’t it?

  13. November 23, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    It has been removed and in it’s place, my initial reaction to finding out I had fucked up hardcore. Which, as you can see was “OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT”. It was an honest mistake and not an attack. I’m not sure what else I can say other than I’m sorry.

    • latsot said,

      November 23, 2010 at 2:31 pm

      OK, we all make mistakes, don’t worry about it. But let’s be clear: you reacted to an attack on your logic not by answering the things I said but instead by looking up details about me. Well, they’re there, they aren’t hidden. But they won’t help your argument.

      Pathetic.

      • Bret Hall said,

        November 23, 2010 at 6:58 pm

        Get over yourself, seriously.

  14. November 23, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    Thank you for accepting my apology.

    Actually I did *not* look up anything about you. When someone replies to a post, their IP address and email address are sent to my email account in the notification and the text of their reply. This is just something that shows up in Gmail.

    I NEVER intentionally share private information like that.

    And since it got lost in my monumental fuck-up, I do want to publicly thank you again. because you kept pushing, I was forced to confront my own confirmation biases. The Dawkins/Plait Dilemma was poorly researched. Next time I’ll do better and try not to react with emotion first. Though I do still want to research the topic, as I’ve said.

  15. latsot said,

    November 23, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    OK. I’m sensitive about this stuff because it’s what I do for a living. I believe you didn’t do it on purpose and it’s water under the bridge. I take back any accuastions and I’m sort of sorry that I made them, but I’m still a bit pissed off about what happened, which was never my fault.

    But nevermind, hopefully we can continue to argue and occasionally agree and no hard feelings on my part.

    I like your blog. I’m a subscriber, so I’m obviously interested in what you have to say. Let’s continue to argue.

    r

  16. latsot said,

    November 23, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    In fact, given our differences on this topic and to show there are no hard feelings, how about writing something together on this dawkins/plait thing? It would be interesting to find out where our differences are and to burn the strawmen on both sides. I’m not sure how this would work, perhaps it could take the form of a debate, or perhaps something more constructive. Either way, I bet we could get it published all over the place.

    What do you think? You have my email address, so get in touch if you think we could do something.

  17. November 23, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    @Bret, I genuinely appreciate you coming to my defense. You’re a good friend. Latsot and I have actually made up and we’re going to be working on a project together.

    He was right. If you look at his criticisms, I didn’t do a very good job of being skeptical in this particular post. As for the rest, I made a major mistake and he had a perfectly normal reaction. But it’s okay now.

    • Bret Hall said,

      November 24, 2010 at 8:25 am

      I understand that you guys made up, but his reaction is far from perfectly normal, and I think an apology from him is in order. A public one. The only thing he offered was a notpology, one that is quite common from people who never want to admit that they were wrong.

  18. Al Morrison said,

    November 24, 2010 at 7:41 am

    Maria, I just read the back and forth. While I am extremely impressed by your willingness to question yourself in light of the attacks you received, I think you should re-consider working with someone who, though they have all the time in the world to respond to each of your comments and replies, writes as if they are in a heated face-to-face argument.

    I have a great deal of respect for your self-reflectiveness, but not your choice to work with this person. I cannot imagine what discussions you two may have had that would have resulted in this decision on your part, so I ask you to be as self-reflective now. Just because you have decided to work with this person, does not mean you cannot change your mind (cognitive dissonance) :-).

  19. November 24, 2010 at 7:41 am

    […] because I’m only human, but that’s an excuse. The reality is that in my post, The Dawkins/Plait Dilemma, I failed to apply critical thinking. I posted with emotion instead of reasoning by not finding […]

  20. latsot said,

    November 24, 2010 at 8:27 am

    Al Morrison,

    Isn’t the point of working with someone to understand the other? Isn’t that what working together should aim to achieve? I adore the idea that I’m suppsedly wrong enough to acheive the accolade of “this person” but my name is rob. I’m right here. You can talk to me if you like. Or you can complain vicariously about how other people conduct their blogs. It’s up to you. Oh, wait a minute, it isn’t, is it? Your opinion isn’t really worth much because you can’t justify it. And it isn”t your blog. So perhaps I can suggest a few places where you can put your dusty opinions.

    Interesting, isn’t it, that you’ve made your decision before any kind of debate, disussion or collaboration takes place. You are a dick. Not because you’re wrong but because you don’t care if you’re right.

  21. latsot said,

    November 24, 2010 at 8:46 am

    Bret Hall:

    Do you feel that public apologies are different to actual ones?

    Your horse probably isn’t so high.

    But wat the fuck. I’m unreservedly sorry for accusing fledge of posting intimate stuff about me. It didn’t happen. It was a mistake. I overreacted. Is that good enough for your champing seethingness?

    This is an actual and a public apology. Im sorry that you think those are different things, they’re not. When I say sorry I’m sorry and I really don’t care if that’s good enough for random idiots.

    • Bret Hall said,

      November 24, 2010 at 10:23 am

      I find it frightfully absurd that you, after writing that, would ever have the nerve again to chastise someone for writing an emotional argument. Can you write anything at all without piling on ad-hominem?

    • Bret Hall said,

      November 24, 2010 at 10:27 am

      If your apology is indeed sincere, then that’s great, but holy crap, learn to debate with some civility.


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