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Posts Tagged ‘communication’

I think the normal way we think about lying is all wrong.

Here’s a thought experiment (paraphrased from memory) that I’ve heard Penn Jillette describe: A man’s wife comes to him and says: “Look, you’ve been really distant lately, and it feels like there’s something going on. You say you’ve been staying late at work every other night, but I’ve called your office and they said you weren’t there. You’ve been cagey about letting me look at your phone, like you’re worried about messages I might see, and also other examples of suspicious behaviour. I don’t know what’s going on, but I want you to look me in the eye and tell me: Are you seeing another woman?”

The man answers no.

The truth is that he’s cheating on his wife with another man.

Did he lie to her?

By a common interpretation of “lying”, the answer has to be that technically, no, he answered her question truthfully. But the fact that you need to insert that “technically” qualifier in there, for that to be an answer you’re comfortable with, should be a hint that it’s not an answer that’s good enough. Even if he gave a strictly accurate answer to the precise question posed, that’s less important than that he deliberately led her to a mistaken understanding.

A question like this doesn’t exist in a vacuum, outside of any cultural or interpersonal context. A wife who asks whether her husband is seeing another woman is seeking a clarification of a broad situation, not a single isolated data point.

Penn’s stance is that yes, the guy is lying. He might not actually be seeing another woman, as he was asked, but what she was getting at is clearly a more general issue of his marital fidelity. Hiding a same-sex affair and feeling like you haven’t been dishonest, because it technically doesn’t come under the scope of the exact question posed, is a perversion of the actual purpose of language: to share ideas and understanding, such that everyone involved can acquire a more accurate view of the state of the world.

And personally, I’d go further. I think as soon as he’s even having an affair, in the context of a relationship where fidelity and openness and sexual honesty have been agreed, the lie is already present. If you fail to mention something which would undermine a person’s implicit assumptions, when you know those assumptions are there, and when you’ve been instrumental in letting someone use those assumptions as part of their model of the world, then you’re playing a leading role in their deception.

And that’s a lie, in any meaningful, important sense. Saying you “haven’t lied” sounds like it means you’ve been honest and truthful. But if the guy in the above conversation is being honest and truthful, then our vocabulary for dealing with these things is badly letting us down.

This is why I’m not persuaded by the idea that words like “deception” already describe the kinds of misleading behaviour and omissions that I’m expecting “lie” to cover. Lying gets so much more press than implicit deception by cunning and deceitful wordplay. It’s a nice short word, easily and commonly used, and as such it seems to have largely become the yardstick for what meaningful deception is. But restricting its definition in such a sharply demarcated way tricks us into thinking that there must be some substantial, absolute difference between what does and doesn’t count as a lie.

If you haven’t technically lied then, according to the way we often talk about lying, whatever deception might actually have taken place was probably just some relatively minor, trivial, pernickety business. Which is often bullshit.

The guy in my example is cheating on his wife in every meaningful sense that she’s interested in. When confronted with her suspicion and her justified reasons for it, he doesn’t volunteer facts which would absolutely be relevant to her interests, he hides the information she’s seeking entirely for reasons of self-preservation, and he answers precisely within the technical limits of her spoken question – and he probably feels like he’s got away with it without lying. He probably feels in some way relieved about not compounding his guilt with a lie, in a way that he wouldn’t have been able to if she’d phrased her question slightly differently, as “Are you seeing someone else?”.

In that case, perhaps he would have given the same answer, in which case he technically “lied” in a way he didn’t above. But the difference between the two situations is totally unimportant. The phrasing of her question doesn’t make the deceitful nature of his answer and his actions any more or less morally wrong. Or perhaps he might have felt compelled to answer differently; maybe if he were confronted with a direct question like that, he’d feel compelled to answer “honestly”, and ‘fess up. In which case his moral compass rests on such a dumbass set of foundations I don’t even know where to start.

As is often the case, this comes back to the Less Wrong sequences for me, specifically this one, which may be the one area of the rationalist community which has most strongly and noticeably influenced my day-to-day thinking. The map is not the territory; whether or not some given statement of fact can be called “a lie” is not some concrete feature of reality. Words are a means for humans to provide each other with a more accurate mental conception of some feature of the universe. Deliberately steering someone anyway from that more accurate conception – whether through false statements, silence, or “technically true” assertions – should be called what it is.

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Well, this is exciting. I’ve had a whole swarm of new followers and passers-by after my Bieber-blog was some kind of featured Thing Of The Day on WordPress. Huzzah! You’re all very welcome. I appreciate all the feedback – the general opinion in the comments seems to be that I was too easy on Bieber for being self-centred, which is certainly valid, but absolutely nobody declared that I’m worse than Hitler-AIDS for thinking what I did. So that’s very encouraging.

That post was a bit of an outlier, though. I’ve barely mentioned Justin Bieber before, and I don’t expect he’ll come up again anytime soon. Today, I’m getting back to one of the more consistent themes of this place. Feel free to continue joining in, or to quietly wander off again once you’ve realised what I’m actually like.

So, let’s recap the story so far:

God does not exist.

There, that pretty much covers it.

And as well as posting articles about this on my blog, sporadically but at length, I’ve recently been cultivating a new hobby: tweeting at people who are wrong on the internet and being nice to them.

The results to date have been mixed.

I’ve had some long conversations, some short ones. Some have been fun and felt kinda fruitful, some have just been frustrating. Some have taught me that holy balls, going round and round in endless futile circles trying to explain what scientists mean by the word “theory” is a really excellent test of patience.

But none of them has involved shouting. None of them has degenerated into a series of abusive epithets in all-caps. None of them has deviated irretrievably from the point into irrelevant personal matters. None of them has become bitter and spiteful.

None of them has been typical of what can happen to even quite moderate discussions between intelligent people of like mind, in other words. Particularly when you’re trying to cram your own nuanced opinion into 140 characters and don’t go out of your way to give the benefit of the doubt to someone else struggling to do the same.

The reason it hasn’t gone that way is fairly simple: I am in total control of exactly 50% of the conversation. I don’t want meanness, sniping, tribalism, and point-scoring to play any part in that 50%. So they don’t.

It’s a sort of experiment, once I decided I trusted myself not to get carried away and tell people what I actually think of them. I go trawling the Twitterscape for mentions of #atheists, say, find some people with whose opinions I take issue, and send them a message. Something I think they might understand, and be able to respond to in turn.

I don’t want to make them feel bad for what they think. I don’t want to try forcing my correctness on them (even though some of them are really, truly, crashingly wrong). There’s no point attempting to browbeat someone like that when a) you’re hoping they might change their mind in your favour, and b) you’re a few impotent pixels of text on a screen on their phone, easily ignored and dismissed with a casual flick of a thumb. If I try being like that, they’ll probably just call me a dick, and they may not be wrong. So I try to find a way to make a point that they’ll be able to absorb.

Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes I do a lot of swearing about how ridiculous these people are, but I do it in my brain and under my breath. Why would I also type it into the internet? We’re back to “me as total cock” territory there. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all. It’s very often the latter. (I very briefly attempted to engage with some of the crowd of lunatics who, apparently within minutes of hearing about the horrific explosions in Boston today, decided that atheists were responsible and Richard Dawkins has blood on his hands. I quickly realised this to be a Serious Mistake, and shouldn’t even have needed reminding of what a pointless endeavour it was. Still, no caps, and no calling anybody a fucking shitsack, so a moral victory.)

Sometimes it does work. At least, as much as such an experiment can possibly work. Some people have said they’ve enjoyed talking to me, after I’ve spent a while strongly disagreeing with them about everything that matters. Some people have given the impression of having heard a new perspective, and being given something new to think about. I haven’t deconverted any Christians yet, but how often does that happen in the course of a single conversation? That’s not the aim. The overall tone of the global conversation has shifted in some small way toward the positive. Which is about all I can do.

And sometimes people are just so wrong – about, say, to pick a topic not remotely at random, the Christian notion of Hell – that it gives me material for another lengthy bloggish ramble. Coming soon to a browser near you. (Possibly tomorrow. Watch this space.)

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People don’t understand science.

A bit sweeping, undoubtedly. A tad harsh, perhaps. But there’s a reason I keep reading so many people, in so many blog posts, explaining basic concepts like hypothesis-testing and falsifiability, over and over again. Most people don’t pay as much attention to my RSS feed as I do, and aren’t even peripherally aware of the world in which I keep myself immersed.

Most people aren’t the exact same type of nerd that I am, and don’t know much about science.

Which is obviously a problem that many of us nerd-types spend much time trying to address. And one interesting recent effort to bring an accessible understanding of scientific ideas, to people who might not otherwise do the heavy reading usually required to develop an expertise in these areas, is the Ten Hundred Words of Science tumblr.

It’s a project inspired by this XKCD cartoon, which diagrams the Saturn V rocket and explains what each part of it does – but only selecting from the thousand most common English words to do so. As a result, the “Up Goer Five” has a door, and chairs, and a people box, and an end marked: “Lots of fire comes out here. This end should point toward the ground if you want to go to space. If it starts pointing toward space you are having a bad problem and you will not go to space today.” (You’re allowed derivations as well; because “go” is on the list, you can have “goer”, “going”, “goes”, etc.)

The tumblr project features scientists describing their jobs, using this thousand-word vocabulary, with the obvious intent of making scientific ideas and research easier for the non-scientifically literate to understand. Here’s a good example from an atmospheric chemistry modeller:

I tell people if the air will be good to breath tomorrow.

Where people live, smoke and other things which are bad for us, are put into the air by cars and other things in towns and cities.

Some days the air comes from parts of the world a long way away from cities which means it is clean. When it rains this cleans the air. On other days the winds are very slow and so all the bad things we put in the air stay where they are – the places where we live. This makes it hard for some people to breath and so we warn them when this will happen.

We use computers to tell us where the winds will come from, if it will rain and where the smoke and other bad things in the air will go to. Then we work out if the air in their city is good or bad and tell people about it.

Now, I’m pretty smart, but I reckon I understand the basics of what this guy does for a living at least as well now, having read the above paragraphs, than if he’d explained it in entirely his own terms. And so, I suspect, would many other people who’d be less inclined to listen to something that sounds more like science.

But I’m bothered by a problem which seems to stop this from being as useful a science communication tool as it could be. “Only the thousand most common words” is a neat idea to make people think about the accessibility, or the jargonistic nature, of their language – but it can obscure more than it helps, if you’re too busy following the letter of the law to abide by its spirit.

Randall Munroe’s own rocket diagram – and the follow-up of a cruise ship he did for JoCo Cruise Crazy 3 – provide a few examples of this. The ninth deck on the “Crazy Water House”, for instance, is labelled: “The floor between eight and ten”. Now, they’re his arbitrary rules and he’s sticking to them, because it’d make the whole linguistic exercise kinda pointless to ignore the fact that “nine” happens to be the only number from one to ten not in the commonest thousand words in the language. But when translating that idea over to science communication… you’re really not preventing any confusion by avoiding the word “nine”. It’s far simpler, in fact, to say “nine” than to employ any euphemistic or synonymous phrase.

The diagram also has an “area where you can run in place so you don’t die as fast”; it actually took me a little while to figure out this must be a gym. And sure, physical exercise and extending one’s life-span are relevant to the idea of a gym – but most people probably have a pretty good idea what a gym is already. The entertainment factor comes from the fact that, while constructed from simple language, this is not a very natural way to describe the thing he’s talking about.

The Up Goer Five, meanwhile, has an area described as: “The kind of air that once burned a big sky bag and people died and someone said ‘Oh, the [humans]!’ (used for burning)”. Which is a fantastic way of describing hydrogen, and totally fits in with Randall’s original intent with his cartoon – which was mainly to be cute. Again, it’s not his work I’m seeking to criticise, but the idea of using the thousand-word vocabulary stratagem as a one-stop solution to more accessible communication.

It’s the same problem as I had with Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity – In Words of Four Letters or Less. For the most part, that thing is so well written that you don’t even notice the incredible limitation being worked around. For a page or two it’s an absolute delight to read; it talks you through some basic science background and thought experiments in a way that’s wonderfully simple to follow. There’s almost no chance you’d come up with these kinds of easily readable sentences unless working against a ridiculous and arbitrary restriction.

But while this arbitrary restriction forces you to eschew a great deal of unnecessary jargon, it also stops you from using some really helpful jargon. The word “light”, for instance, comes up a lot in traditional discussions of relativity, and with good reason. It’s crucially important to the topic at hand. It’s also a whole five letters long. While it’s always good to consider how you’re defining your terms, it’s not so great when the same rule which prompts you to do that makes you always talk about a “wave”, instead of light, and a “pull”, instead of gravity. Sometimes a slightly longer or less common word is more helpful, and confuses things less.

Ben Goldacre’s submission to the tumblr is pretty great, but some of them could be improved on by putting some of the jargon back in. Here’s an example:

I work at a school in a very cold place, where I study groups of stars in the sky. Most stars live together in groups of hundred-hundred-hundred-hundred-hundred stars (imagine that)… All of us live near a star that is part of one of these big star-groups, called the White-Drink Way.

This is a case where the thousand-word rule provides a great starting point for explaining things in simple terms, but actively makes things worse if taken too seriously. Not being able to use the word “galaxy”, or correctly name our one as the Milky Way, is a hindrance to communication.

Great science communication is really hard to get right, and #upgoerfive seems like a great way to get people thinking and talking about how they might do it better. But no single, all-encompassing rule is going to be the answer to everything – especially not if we refuse to bend it a little when common sense tells us we should.


Mostly for the sake of completion (I’m not a scientist), here’s an #upgoerfive-valid description of my job (created with the help of the text editor):

People work at their jobs most of their lives, to get money to buy things, like a house and food, and also fun stuff like games and books. When you stop working because you get too old, you’ll still need food and fun things, but you won’t have this money from your job any more.

You might have a family who can help look after you, but your family might not have enough money themselves to make sure you have enough food and can stay safe and happy. Or you might not have a family who can help you anyway.

If things were good for you, then when you were working you got more money than you needed to spend, and kept some of it to spend later when you got old and didn’t have a job any more. But you might also have made a deal, with the people you worked for, to put some money in a sort of money-box.

The way this money-box works is, you agree to put some money in there each month, out of the money you would get for doing your job. But you can’t just take it out of the box when you like – you have to agree to leave it in the box until you get old and aren’t going to work at your job any more.

So far it sounds the same as any other money-box you might put money into, only not as good because you can’t take the money out when you like. But there are some more good things about it that make people want to use these money-boxes. One good thing is that the people who give you a job put some money into the money-box too, for you to have later. Another is that the people who control the bit of land you live on won’t take away a little piece of the money when you put it in the box, the way they do with the other money you get from your job.

This money-box is also different because of what happens when you open it when you get old. You don’t just get to take all the money out and spend it, but you can use it to get someone else to pay you a small bit of money, every so often, for the rest of your life. A big group of people will take the money-box and then pay you as if you still had a job (though it will probably be quite a bit less than you were paid when you did have a job.)

People often have lots of questions about how much money is in their money-box, and how much money that means they will get every month when they’re old. They also might have another money-box somewhere else, and maybe another and another, and they want to put all their money from all their boxes into one money-box, to make things easy. They ask me things like this and I write them letters with answers which will help them (if I am good at my job). They also might decide that they have got old enough to open their money-box sooner or later than other people usually do, and I can help them do that.

There are lots of other things about the money-boxes too, because there is a very big set of things you are and aren’t allowed to do, set down by the people who control the bit of land we live on, and this set of things keeps changing and making things hard to understand easily. These other things probably aren’t that interesting and I’ve done lots of talking already so I’ll stop now.

(Can you feel how badly I wanted to just call it a pension? It would’ve made things much easier.)

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It’s not easy taking apart and analysing the kind of predictably abhorrent trolling from a major columnist in a newspaper like the Daily Mail sometimes.

Or perhaps the problem is that, in a way, it’s too easy. I think sufficient evidence is in by now to conclude that Liz Jones is an objectively terrible person. Clearly no sensible person should need to have it explained to them why her latest column, about the lengths she’s gone to deceive her partner so that she can become pregnant with his child, is just completely awful.

And yet its proud publication on such a prominent news site implies that at least one person doesn’t see this as a fantastically depressing outlook to have on life. If this is really how a non-negligible number of people think, there must still be value to explaining why it makes the rest of us bash our heads against walls and sob exhaustedly into pillows.

But even reading something like this just makes me so tired.

I don’t despair for humanity – if Liz Jones had the power to make me that cynical, I really would be depressed. I just despair for her.

Look at the state of her relationship to begin with, as she describes it.

I wanted a career, freedom, a nice house and to keep my figure. As a feminist, I looked down on mumsy types.

But when I was in my late 30s, I decided that if I didn’t get pregnant soon then it might never happen. I had also reached a point in my life where I wanted to settle down with a man, and though my boyfriend at that time was wildly unsuitable, I thought that I could change him.

The abrupt realisation that she might miss the chance to have her own child was clearly something that came as an unpleasant shock to her, even after all those years she’d spent scorning “mumsy” types. You have to wonder how much self-loathing she’d been covering up all that time, if the desire for children was actually this important to her.

In fact it was so important to her – and, evidently, she thinks so little of herself – that she felt compelled to stay with someone who was “wildly unsuitable”, and presumably wasn’t making her that happy, just because she was desperate for some stability.

But given what appears to matter to her in a relationship, it doesn’t sound like she’s doing herself any favours.

He lived with his parents before he moved in with me, and earned very little money. I was working on a newspaper and was fiercely ambitious. He was laid-back, I am not. I was ready for a baby, he wasn’t.

I recently moved into my girlfriend‘s house. She’s got a full-time job and is paying the mortgage; I’m unemployed. But despite this and other differences, we’re finding ourselves extremely well suited to each other, because… well, we like each other. We’re not formally collaborating on some business proposition. We care about each other and want to continue spending time together, because we enjoy it. And whenever there’s something important to one of us, which the other isn’t picking up on or might not be fully on board with, we have a conversation about it.

But this isn’t the sort of thing that goes on in relationships for Liz Jones. She complains that her boyfriend “wouldn’t” have sex with her, but doesn’t elaborate on what his reservations were, or whether she was ever curious as to the cause of his reticence. His decision to move in with her was, she thinks, “probably more out of a desire to be able to walk to work than any real love for me”, implying that she never actually asked whether that was the reason. The most succinct explanation she gives for why she would never want to share a child with this man is that he “didn’t earn any money”.

And a marriage, as we later find out, means to Liz Jones that a woman should have “every right to want to start a family”. Wanting to start a family is surely no crime, even for someone unmarried, but deceiving someone so as to force their involvement in your efforts? Does any woman ever have a right to ignore their partner’s wishes and trap them like this, even if they’re married? Even if – and this is a genuine justification she uses for her actions – she’s “bought him many, many M&S ready meals”?

It’s easy to see it as loathsome and despicable when Liz Jones attempted to covertly impregnate herself using sperm from a used condom. When she describes this as a plan which “many will doubtless find shocking”, it sounds like she’s making a neat attempt to shift the guilt onto us for being too square and unhip to handle her maverick originality, rather than on her for being awful, so very awful.

But this is just what a relationship is to her. Women want children and men don’t, so that’s just what you do. Men “should be much more wary”, because women aren’t to be trusted. One of her female friends was more successful than she was, and her former partner is now “in a new relationship having to pay support for a child he never sees”. Liz doesn’t even seem to condemn this particularly, or even bemoan the state of society’s priorities that such behaviour is so normalised; it’s just a somewhat unfortunate but natural consequence of the only way people could ever possibly behave in Liz Jones’s world. So it goes.

I really feel sad for her.

But still, it’s important to remember that she is awful.

I still have days now when I wished the sperm-theft had worked; that I had a daughter or son my husband felt compelled to visit.

Not, I’m ashamed to say, because I think I’d be a particularly good mum, but because our relationship would not have been a complete waste of time, with nothing to show for it but bad memories and a shared cat.

That’s her main regret resulting from the whole thing. Not that the relationship didn’t survive, or that she and her partner had found their differences less irresolvable and had made some decisions together which suited them both. Not even that she had a child with whom she could share unconditional mutual love, in a way she’d never been able to with her boyfriend or husband. She just wants something to show for all the work she put in. If that something happens to be a new helpless life which is entirely dependent on her and which she’s not very good at caring for – well, that’s just the way Liz Jones’s world works.

What a depressing place. If you’ve read this far, I’m sorry I’ve made you spend so much time there.

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It’s time for an Ultimate Showdown.

In July 2010, Phil Plait gave a speech espousing a hippie philosophy of universal love and harmony, in which he called for an end to any expressions of anger and aggression, and declared that the one true path allows only peace and tolerance for all our fellow men, no matter what they believe.

Since then, the skeptical community has been riven between two factions: Phil’s followers of the Light, and the dark and menacing hordes of PZ Myers, whose shrill screams of abuse and condemnation against the wacky and deluded echo around the blogosphere.

Allegiances have been made and broken, and now these two armies prepare to determine once and for all which single immutable philosophy shall dominate all skeptics’ interactions with believers and the public in the future.

LET BATTLE COMMENCE!!

…Okay, no.

There is a debate going on here, but it’s nothing like as silly and dramatic as it’s often made out to be. It’s not even especially divisive. Most infuriatingly, it’s not an argument with two clearly divided opposing sides. It’s not about Phil vs. PZ, arguing over some contentious philosophical point on which they utterly and irreconcilably disagree.

From what I’ve managed to untangle of the often garbled debate, almost everyone agrees on almost everything. And everyone’s been banging on about it far more than necessary.

I am now going to bang on about it far more than necessary.

 

Setting the scene

The title of Phil’s talk, and the theme which has carried the ongoing discussion since then, was “Don’t Be A Dick”. Phil has observed that “vitriol and venom are on the rise”, and this has prompted him to ask a certain question of his fellow skeptics. This question generally either resonates profoundly with people, or makes them grit their teeth with frustration at the implicit over-simplification.

A show of hands in the room reveals that many of the audience used to believe in something which they don’t any more – “flying saucers, psychic powers, religion, anything like that”. Then he asks this:

How many of you no longer believe in those things, and you became a skeptic, because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot, brain-damaged, and a retard?

A few hands are raised again, but not many.

It was somewhat rhetorical, so let’s spell out the points that I think Phil wanted people to take away from that particular question:

  1. Most people aren’t persuaded to change their minds by being screamed at and called idiots.
  2. Therefore, if skeptics want to change anyone’s minds, they should not scream at people and call them idiots.

To the nearest approximation, I completely agree with both of these points, and I think most people would.

But these are not the only things being argued.

 

Only human

Let’s put the skeptical outreach issue aside for a moment here. Is screaming insults directly into somebody’s face ever actually acceptable? Is it ever recommended, a good idea, a productive and worthwhile means of achieving your goals, or even permitted by the rules of basic human decency?

I think there’s a strong case to be made for “No”. The kind of hostility Phil’s talking about is a clear sign of irrational, out-of-control anger. Insofar as he’s simply advising us not to be this unrestrainedly furious, he’s not said anything remotely controversial.

This doesn’t relate to skepticism as much as it does to the kinds of acceptable human interaction that most people should have learned by the age of five.

By extension, this kind of dickishness is not a problem with skepticism, it’s a problem with people. It’s characteristic of our entire species, so anyone who feels compelled to abandon the skeptical movement because some people in it haven’t got the hang of not being an obnoxious ass might as well recuse themselves from the entire human race while they’re at it.

But most humans, and most skeptics, are better than this. We don’t need to be reminded that yelling so much abuse that people are getting hosed down in spittle is bad form. So let’s look at the more subtle points that people have taken from Phil’s talk.

 

Who listens to dicks anyway

The point about screaming in people’s faces seems trivial. But there are other, less comically extreme ways to violate Wheaton’s Law.

The question becomes: When have you ever changed your mind because someone was rude and unkind to you?

The implied follow-up is: By comparison, when have you ever changed your mind because someone was polite and gentle to you?

And the implicit assertion behind it all is: People will be more likely to change their minds if you are polite and gentle than if you are rude and unkind. Therefore, we should be polite and gentle, and we should not be rude or unkind.

The first sentence may well be true. I know that I find myself far less inclined to listen and take on board somebody else’s points in a one-on-one debate if they’re being deliberately obnoxious and cruel. And I’m not alone in this; people do tend to be reinforced in their opinions, rather than receptive to counter-arguments, when coming up against someone who disagrees with them in a combative and hostile way.

Civil discourse seems like a much better way to bypass prejudices and biases and exchange some information, which is surely a necessary thing for any rational person to change their mind. There’s a great deal to be said, when talking about their beliefs to someone who you think is wrong, for not being outright abusive and unkind to them.

But there’s actually a much better reason than this to moderate your dickish abusiveness.

 

The bigger picture

Whoever you’re arguing with, whatever the circumstances, and however reasonable and approachable you’re being, they’re almost certainly not going to have a sudden complete turn-around right in the middle of this one conversation, as a direct and instantaneous result of what you’ve said.

This is actually quite sensible. If they’ve spent a long time believing what they do, and it’s seemed like a viable worldview all this time, then anything new they learn which might shift their position deserves some thinking time. You might have made a lot of sense, and maybe they had to admit to themselves that their arguments didn’t hold up. But at the very least, they should probably sleep on it before entirely reversing a long-held position, and see whether you still seem right in the morning.

It’s futile to engage in personal discussion if you’re going to count any result other than instant capitulation as a complete failure. The effect you have on your opponent might take a long time to materialise.

But, crucially, they’re not the only ones being affected.

If your debate is happening in a public auditorium, or in a series of blog posts and comment threads, or anywhere else that other people can observe it, then other people will observe it. And this is a vital part of the discourse. In many cases, the effect on the spectators will be greater than that on your opponent.

Look at Sylvia Browne. (Not for too long, or your will to live may start to dissolve, possibly along with your eyes.) Robert Lancaster’s site about her is brilliant, thorough, extremely critical, ruthlessly polite, and is in no way a form of direct argument with Sylvia Browne herself. I don’t know of anyone in the skeptical community who would consider such an argument remotely worthwhile. Nobody is trying to change Sylvia Browne’s mind about anything.

Instead, the site exists for the benefit of the people who might needlessly throw away huge sums of money or be severely traumatised as a direct result of what Sylvia Browne does. Trying to persuade her to abandon the industry that’s made her millions and formed the basis of her life’s work for decades is futile – but people who aren’t entrenched in any real delusions, and have just been a bit impressed by what they’ve seen her do, will often be open to reasonable explanations. And there are a lot more of them than there are of her.

Everyone who’s arguing with Sylvia Browne is (or should be) doing so for the benefit of the mass of onlookers.

And something that might benefit said mass is for you not to be a total dick.

Now, there are always going to be people who leap to accusations that you’re being rude and unfair, no matter how carefully you tread. Sylvia certainly has her zealous supporters who seem to take any kind of skepticism as a direct and unprovoked attack, however delicately and reasonably it’s phrased.

My advice on that score is: try to have a better sense of what constitutes needlessly dickish behaviour than Sylvia Browne’s most rabid fans. If you find this difficult, you may be beyond my help.

Some of her followers will be open to changing their minds, but it probably won’t happen overnight. Someone’s opinion of any particular fake psychic tomorrow will be largely dependent on what their opinion was today. But over time, with enough exposure, the message will get through to the world as a whole: this point of view also exists, and isn’t going away, and might just have something to it that’s worth listening to.

 

Mock mock

So we can agree that not coming across as vindictive, petty, abusive, and prone to temper tantrums when anyone disagrees with you is a good way to influence people outside the argument, as well as to make sure you seem more rational and approachable to your debate opponent zemself.

But civility isn’t the only thing that spectators appreciate. They’re a complex and diverse lot, that “third party” you keep hearing about. They’re often put off when you scream in other people’s faces, true, but sometimes they like things that push the boundaries of impeccable politeness. Sometimes they like satire, or mockery, or a good blunt smackdown of some bullshit.

Phil Plait might also have asked: When have you ever changed your mind because somebody screamed abuse at somebody else?

And if you extend this beyond the trivial bounds of cartoonish douchebaggery – replace “screamed abuse at” with “said something curt or abrasive to”, and “changed your mind” with “learned something about some issue which has clarified your position” – then I suspect this becomes a common occurrence.

Certain well-placed sniping, bitchery, sarcasm, and other forms of dialogue with a bit more substance to them than abject obsequiousness can be fun. Both to indulge in personally and to watch from the sidelines. And things that can be enjoyed and laughed at are an important part of any debate which you expect to hold anyone’s interest.

And sometimes, as well as being entertainingly engaging and provocative, potentially dick-like behaviour is simply necessary to make a point. Sometimes it’s not only possible but necessary to call people’s ideas ludicrous, and their decisions ignorant and ill-informed, if you want to retain your intellectual integrity.

The people being criticised in this way might claim that it makes you a dick. But if your criticism is honest and justified, then being this much of a dick is worth it for the ability to make an important point forcefully.

 

Common ground

Here’s what really bugs me about this debate so far, though: I don’t think I’ve actually said anything here which either Phil or PZ would seriously disagree with. Despite the way that some absolute dichotomy between two opposing worldviews is often depicted, I think their positions are virtually identical.

Phil’s message was primarily about being nicer and less aggressive, but with a clarification about the usefulness of well placed scorn and severity. In essence, his proposition amounts to:

Sure, we shouldn’t be totally spineless, but that doesn’t mean we should act like douchebags.

PZ, on the other hand, has defended taking a more assertive and unapologetic approach, but is careful not to be needlessly cruel to undeserving targets. His point, then, is basically:

Sure, we shouldn’t act like douchebags, but that doesn’t mean we should be totally spineless.

There’s more common ground there than the debate often seems to admit. Really, they’re just expressing concerns about different pitfalls to be avoided.

Phil’s “side” of the debate is often being painted as the caring and thoughtful side, which would never stoop to ridicule of anyone, at any time. It’s as if this particular bloc of skeptics are the only ones who understand that mockery will only ever turn outsiders away from your cause, and would never stoop to anything so self-evidently counter-productive.

But let’s be clear: Phil Plait has never claimed to be the goddamn Buddha.

The image of a man whose brain seems to have caught fire, with a caption reading “The Stupid, It Burns”, is a regular feature on Phil’s blog, often appearing when some kooky opinion is expressed by some person or organisation of note. He’s more than once declared the entire state of Texas (it’s usually Texas) to be “doomed” because of some backwards political decision being made somewhere.

He’s also not held back from loudly expressing his outrage over the dishonesty, credulity, and carelessness that some supposed medical authorities have exhibited over the issue of vaccines, and the number of children who die of preventable illnesses as a direct result of irrational non-medicine.

Does any of this really qualify as being unwaveringly delicate and sensitive toward those who disagree with him?

In fact, it seems perfectly in keeping with the advice given by P-Zed in the presentation he gave at 2010’s TAM London. One of the soundbite suggestions he offered as a counterpoint to “Don’t Be A Dick” was: “Be The Best Dick You Can Be”. The line that summed it up best was: “We shouldn’t be gratuitously obnoxious; we should be purposefully obnoxious.”

PZ and Phil are both, to my mind, pretty good at this.

 

In Conclusion

The end.


Further reading which I couldn’t integrate into the above blather itself:

Almost Diamonds
A comment from Dawkins
The War Over “Nice”

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