27 October 2010

On not being a dick

Skeptics and critical thinkers everywhere have recently been engaged in a sort of family quarrel. The issue: how should one go about correcting the falsehoods, poor reasoning and wrong beliefs of others? With tact and sensitivity, or with righteous anger? The answer seems obvious, but some in the skeptic community think that too many of their fellow nonsense-debunkers are choosing the latter option, with predictable results.

One such critic of skepticism’s combative tendencies is Phil Plait, who gave a talk at The Amaz!ng Meeting 8 held in Las Vegas several months ago. Plait basically told his audience that skeptics and critical thinkers should stop ‘being dicks’ when they engage with and criticize those who hold beliefs unsubstantiated by evidence. Unsurprisingly, his suggestion caused much controversy and inter-skeptic argument over whether ‘dickishness’ might have its place in pro-reason activism or if such antagonistic tactics are actually counterproductive to the cause.

Perhaps Plait’s rebuke is well deserved by that segment of the skeptic community who do let their zeal get the better of them, and so fail to achieve the desired outcome i.e. successfully persuading others of the facts. But there are some who argue that civility isn’t always the most effective approach. Richard Dawkins, that arch-provocateur, thought that Plait missed the point about who the actual targets of pro-reason activism were:

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.

It seems Dawkins favours an oblique strategy, the indirect approach. Yet given the widespread irrationalism, ignorance and superstition in society, promoters of knowledge and critical thinking need every possible tool in their activist kit if they are to be effective.

But there are good reasons to show consideration and empathy for those who hold false beliefs. We mustn’t discount the role played by life circumstances, brain makeup and other deterministic factors in shaping a person’s beliefs. I reserve my disapproval for those who have had the good fortune to be born with a sound mind, have access to quality education, healthcare and information technology, and live in a safe, comfortable environment under the protection of liberal, democratic institutions, but still choose not to improve their intellectual abilities and critical thinking skills. Perhaps they should reflect on the fact that but for a favourable roll of destiny’s dice, they would be among the poor, starving, sick, uneducated and oppressed millions who would gladly exploit the very benefits they fail to make good use of.

Part of the reason behind the vehemence of some skeptical arguments is because those making them are aware of the potentially harmful consequences of false beliefs. While there exist causes of harm that are simply due to the vagaries of fate and impartial cosmic forces (natural disasters, accidents, disease), many more are due to ignorance and misinformation. ‘Alternative’ medicine, anti-vaccine propaganda, climate change denialism, certain health food and dieting fads – these are some examples of ideas whose veracity is unsupported by evidence, ideas that can result (and in many cases have resulted) in harm to one and many. It is this moral dimension that lends passion (and often not a little heat) to the rhetoric of those trying to educate others on what is true and what is false.

Still, some advocates for evidence-based beliefs and critical thinking do overstep the boundary separating civil discourse from plain ol’ meanness. Whether it’s the use of personal attacks, humiliation or self-congratulatory condescension towards one’s supposed intellectual inferiors, such methods do little to win people over to one’s point of view. In fact, it’s more likely that an aggressive approach will make your target audience dig in their heels even deeper and so become impervious to your attempts at persuading them of their folly.

But if you have politely pointed out their errors in reasoning, flawed thinking, incorrect information and inconsistent beliefs with neither condescension nor malice and they still take offense, well, then they’re just being obstinate, irrational and thin-skinned. Or am I being a dick?


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