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.