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Phil Plait's Don't Be A Dick talk at TAM8 Now Online PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by D. J. Grothe   

About a month ago now, Phil Plait (the Bad Astronomer) gave a talk at The Amaz!ng Meeting 8 that stirred quite a reaction among some folks in the skeptical movement, both positive and negative. I had my own strong reaction, and have enjoyed the self-criticism that this talk fostered. I have had many conversations about it since with skeptics holding varied and contrasting views about the best approaches to adopt when working to advance skepticism and critical thinking in our world.

We're making the video available online so that more people may take part in the conversation and because some of the criticism of the talk came from people who hadn't yet seen it.

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written by Sc00ter, August 17, 2010
I loved this talk and I'm glad that Phil gave it. The only criticism I could possibly give is that I wish he gave this talk when he was president of the JREF. Only because I think it could have meant more if he did this talk in that capacity.
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written by ShawnThomas, August 17, 2010
I thought this was great, and needed to be said. And I'm not just saying that because I'm a huge fan of Phil Plait. I myself battle with being "snarky" in talking, even with my friends, about skeptical topics. A conscious effort to shift the tone of the entire skeptical movement could only help us all. imo.
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QuickTime Format?
written by mlanger, August 17, 2010
I'd like to get a copy of this in QuickTime format so I can put it on my computer or iPad and watch it again (and likely again). Video is not fun to watch on a dial-up connection, which is what I'm stuck with this summer.
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written by malfeitor, August 17, 2010
Wish it was subtitled...wish I was a better typer. smilies/grin.gif
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..., Lowly rated comment [Show]
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written by sowellfan, August 17, 2010
Wish I'd been able to make it to TAM - maybe next year. I'd heard good things about this speech, and the "controversy", but it's better than I expected. I think Phil puts together a compelling case.

@whatisthis: Nobody is saying that we should accede to the legislative interests of the religious right. Only that you make a lot more progress by actually engaging people. Sure, it won't work with some people, but do you have any evidence to show that whatever you're advocating will actually work? Also, somehow you start talking about warfare and "turf". I'm not sure what the heck you're talking about, honestly.
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written by KenR, August 17, 2010
Matt at Atheist Experience has an interesting counterpoint about Phil's argument and the style of it:
http://atheistexperience.blogs...dick.html

Phil himself expands upon what he meant at his Discover blog (part 1 of 3):
http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/08/17/dont-be-a-dick-part-1-the-video/
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written by KenR, August 17, 2010
Trying again, this time with url tags:
http://atheistexperience.blogs...-dick.html
http://blogs.discovermagazine....the-video/
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Setting an example
written by Anitra, August 17, 2010
People may be intimidated into not saying stupid things, but they cannot be intimidated into actually thinking more clearly. Like it, lump it, or dip it in chocolate, insulting people is more likely to make it harder for them to listen to you, than to make it easier.

Skeptics are as morally outraged by sins against science and logic as conservatives are morally outraged by sexual sin and religious blasphemy. That is understandable. If we demand that other people put their feelings of outrage aside long enough to listen to an argument, understand what we are saying, and express themselves calmly, then we have to demonstrate how to do that. The person who considers themselves the most mature side of the argument is obligated to act like it.
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written by Otara, August 17, 2010
I think ultimately much of this comes down to personal style and the risk with these debates is getting into one true way of changing peoples minds when really different people need different things, and similar with settings.

In therapy theres 'RET' therapy where the original proponent Albert Ellis used to argue quite directly with clients. Other therapists used to be aghast at his method, but it did actually achieve change.

I couldnt do RET as that person originally did it, Id find it exhausting, and it seems quite combative to me.

So Id say its partly 'what are you hoping to achieve' but also partly 'what works for you'. Just make sure it really does I guess.
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Room for more than one style?
written by Anitra, August 17, 2010
I agree that the style to use depends on both "what you are hoping to achieve" and "what works for you" -- and that if you claim to be trying to achieve a particular result and keep using a style that doesn't succeed, you need to turn some skepticism on your ownself.

My own objectives include 1) keep my own thinking flexible, find my own errors, keep learning new things; 2) decrease polarization; 3) increase critical thinking; 4) communicate. To accomplish any of that, I first have to understand what the other person is saying, make the best argument I can make to myself for their side. When I run into somebody who makes no attempt to understand others, I have to ask them what their own goal is. I have to recognize that some people really do just talk to relieve their own feelings, and "communication" is not one of their objectives.

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Thank you Phil!
written by davidm, August 18, 2010
This was terrific! And a long time coming.

I used to read the JREF blog/comments daily and occasionally pipe in, but at a certain point because of the smugness and "snarkiness" I often encountered, I frankly got turned off.

I'm also a "rational" Jew in the Orthodox community, which means that I'm the type of person who could potentially serve as a strategic ally. Someone who knows and empathizes with and lives among religious people, and who practices a religion, yet who makes no supernatural claims whatsoever. And there are more out there like me, as I'm discovering. But like I say the tenor of the discussion here can be a turn-off, especially to people on the fringe of their religious communities who are looking for a friendly place to explore skeptical ideas.

If there's one thing I would add that Phil didn't say, it's that speaking respectfully and amicably with people isn't just about "winning them over." It's about being a higher level person. As a religious believer who was faced with a preponderance of evidence (scientific and experiential) which ran counter to my beliefs, I had to face the question: Am I a better person for holding these beliefs, or is maintaining intellectual/personal integrity a higher order choice? Eventually I made a "leap of faith" (as it were) and chose the latter.

Point being, the same way that I see reason and skepticism as part of a higher mode of being, so too is refined interpersonal conduct a crucial part of that higher mode. And not just because it's "good form", but because ostensibly we're supposed to genuinely *care* about one another's welfare. Compassion and decency, after all, are areas where skepticism and religion CAN AGREE. It's where people with all kinds of differing ideas and beliefs CAN AGREE.

Anyway, enough sermonizing. Kudos to Phil for the great talk!
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I loved this talk
written by GrahamZ, August 18, 2010
I agree with just about everything that Phil said. A lot of it seemed like common sense to me at first glance, but it obviously isn't (if it were common sense, it wouldn't need saying to begin with). And it bears repeating. Probably, most of us have seen rational discussions devolve into the Internet equivalent of a barroom brawl. I've even seen it happen over misunderstandings between two people with almost the same exact opinion, over a miscommunication.

That said, staying calm when you are getting frustrated with someone can be easier said than done. I definitely aim for that. But when I get frustrated, I also have difficulty constructing rational arguments without raising my voice. At those times, backing off may be the best policy. At least on the net, it's easier to step back and think before you speak, than it is in person.
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written by Konstantin, August 18, 2010
Um... am I misunderstanding something, or does it say "TAM8, October 8-11 2010"? Shouldn't that be July?

Anyways, a great talk.
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Hmmmmm......
written by GusGus, August 18, 2010

Has anybody ever seen Phil Plait and Adam Savage in the same room at the same time? Are there really two guys? Hmmmmm...
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written by Chakolate, August 18, 2010
Is there an mp3 of the talk anywhere? I can't watch, but I can listen.
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The curate's egg
written by kdv, August 18, 2010
@KenR

Thanks for the link to the atheist experience blog. The posting there about Phil's talk was excellent, IMHO.

Plus I got a real laugh out of his "get-out-of-skepticism-free card". I'll use that one. Probably without attribution, because my memory is terrible. I'll concede that it's not original though.

I agree with Matt D ( the blogpost author ) that Phil's talk had a lot of legitimate points to it. But I also agree with him that Phil was setting up a strawman by his references to "screaming in your face calling you an idiot". How much does that happen? I don't know, but I don't think I've seen it happening very often. If Phil's thesis is based upon the premise that it happens a lot, and/or that it's increasing, then he really should give some evidence, or at least some examples. When Matt D called attention to that omission, Phil's response ( as reported by Matt D ) was, rather than giving some examples, he accused Matt of denying that such incidences existed, which can most generously be described as a very serious misreading of what Matt was stating.

There is certainly an important place for calm, reasoned discussion of the differing viewpoints. That place = the occasions where the other party is prepared to do likewise. [Anecdote alert!] In my experience, it's more common that faced with an attempt at a reasonable challenge and an invitation to discuss the issues, the other side is more likely to either refuse to discuss it, or to launch into ad hominem abuse - "You're just closed minded!". And, of course, there's always the Gish Gallop. Between two people, none of that matters very much. In front of an audience, be it one or a thousand, of people whose views might well be open to persuasion, I think that the skeptic tends to lose. It's been highlighted ( was it here or somewhere else? ) that a lot of the woosters want to settle the issue only in the forum of a public debate. They know the advantage that gives them, when only one side is committed to reason and honest discussion. (Ok, now I remember, it was Science Based Medicine where the issue was addressed. )

Sure, there are occasions where a sensible, reasoned discussion is the best possible response. I sincerely wish that all occasions fell into that category. I don't think they do. There are occasions where "The claims you made are so f***** stupid that they should embarrass you" is the only response that might at least not concede the floor to your opponent.

And that doesn't make you a dick.
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@davidm
written by Caller X, August 22, 2010
At the risk of being dick (nothing new), what supernatural claims do you not make that allow you to still self-identify as a Jew? Yes, I would ask a Christian the same question, blah, blah. Pillar of smoke, column of fire? Burning bush? Mene mene tekel upharsin? Forgiveness of sins yet to be committed during Yom Kippur? Messiah much?


I'm also a "rational" Jew in the Orthodox community, which means that I'm the type of person who could potentially serve as a strategic ally. Someone who knows and empathizes with and lives among religious people, and who practices a religion, yet who makes no supernatural claims whatsoever. And there are more out there like me, as I'm discovering. But like I say the tenor of the discussion here can be a turn-off, especially to people on the fringe of their religious communities who are looking for a friendly place to explore skeptical ideas.
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@Phil
written by Caller X, August 22, 2010
"Our brain is wired for faith" ???

Want to back that up?
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@Phil
written by Caller X, August 22, 2010
"The generic person out there... someone not in our group..."

Sounds like dick-talk to me, Phil
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@phil
written by Caller X, August 22, 2010
I'm 13 minutes into this talk and it is mind-numbimgly tedious. Bailing out for now, but will probably revisit.
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