Phil Plait: “Don’t Be a Dick”

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 21, 2010 in Video

Also, here’s Phil’s take on the speech.

Alonzo Fyfe’s take part one, two, three.

Here is Phil Plait’s list of people who agree and disagree with the speech.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Patrick August 21, 2010 at 10:35 pm

1. I really hate passive aggressive criticism of others you refuse to name.

2. If you assume that I’m talking about the behavior of any specific person just because of the venue in which I made that statement and the nature of the ongoing discussion in the community, I will tell you that you are reading too much into my comment and imply that this says something about you.

3. Some people who agree with me will of course assume that I’m talking about at least one specific individual. Obviously this isn’t MY fault.

4. Other people who agree with me will note that many people have assumed that I was talking about a specific individual, and will conclude that this says something about that individual. Again this isn’t MY fault.

5. If this annoys the crap out of you, then you will understand how I feel.


BathTub August 21, 2010 at 11:25 pm
Mark H. August 22, 2010 at 1:38 am

Patrick, I don’t think naming names would have been helpful. Like he said, a person being attacked gets defensive. Likewise, the fans of a person being attacked get defensive as well. Defensive people are not open to changing their minds or behavior. I’m not saying that criticizing is the same as attacking, but to the receiver, there’s a thin line between the two.

This speech was not about calling out specific people. It was about the effective presentation of skepticism.


Beelzebub August 22, 2010 at 2:49 am

PZ Myers’s latest post on Ray Kurzweil has gotten me thinking that he may be a dick after all. It’s hard sometimes to admit when a fellow skeptic is playing the douche, but maybe it’s time for some housecleaning. For me it started a few months ago when he attached a French mathematical systems biologist for being insufficiently grounded in reality. They guy responded on Pharyngula, basically saying “WTF?”… There’s a certain hypersensitivity to anything that doesn’t conform to total mundanity that is almost becoming a witch hunt against woo. Woo is the new witches taint. I don’t like it either, but if you express an opinion you’re labeled a “concern troll” and excoriated.


G'DIsraeli August 22, 2010 at 6:36 am

“scientism! bloody reductionists!
We should in our society celebrate diversity, reality is a matter of perspective. all beliefs are faith, you should respect other beliefs!”

Yes, some opposition would sound like this.


thepowerofmeow August 22, 2010 at 8:12 am

I am a little tired of the argument about what the most effective way of converting people is. That is an important point, but what about the larger question – what is the right thing to do?

Perhaps being a dick isn’t right, it accomplishes more harm than good, even if it is more likely to convert (which is debatable). And I am not necessarily talking about harm to the object of the scorn, but also to the perpetrator of the scorn. Are you becoming hardened? calloused? Are you walking through life looking for a fight? Is there a larger purpose than converting others, such as living out our ideals of what the right way to interact with people is?

It’s all a balancing act, of course.


Bill Maher August 22, 2010 at 8:13 am

He was supposed to be at Dragon*con this year, but he cancelled. Now I will have to settle seeing the cast of Capricon, Star Trek: Next Gen, Stan Lee, Voltaire, and James Randi :(


thepowerofmeow August 22, 2010 at 8:17 am

An analogy:

Many people defending music education say we need it because it makes kids good at math. That is their reason. This is like people defending being nice because it’s the most effective way to convert people.

But what about the inherent value in music? The inherent value in being nice? Charitable? Kind?


Burk August 22, 2010 at 8:32 am

Very interesting and helpful talk. But I have to say that having a few bomb-throwing atheists in the mix has been extraordinarily helpful to bring the spotlight in our direction. That publicity has put atheism on the talk shows and in the public debate. Sure, more good is done on a retail level by temperate, thoughtful debate and setting a good example. But being called an idiot (from a safe distance) turns people’s heads in the first place, inducing those first essential questions. Religious people tend to live in a bubble of sorts, unconsciously fearful of just the existential issues we raise.


Almost Chris August 22, 2010 at 8:56 am

When I was a fundie Michael Behe intelligent-design espouser, continual ridicule by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show of my position make a big difference. I respected Jon Steward for many other reasons, and his attack of my opposition to evolution, and a few other influences, did eventually bring me to a point where I decided to look at the issue from a more balanced perspective. This in turn eventually led me to accept evolution as scientific fact. So over time Jon Stewart’s ridicule did play a major role in changing my mind.


lukeprog August 22, 2010 at 9:41 am

Almost Chris,

Fascinating. Thanks for sharing. As it happens, ridicule of my own Christianity by Matt Dillahunty helped me to re-examine the issues from the perspective that I could be wrong about Christianity.


cl August 22, 2010 at 10:00 am


Just so you know, when I criticize you [and Fyfe] for what I believe to be utter failings and inconsistencies concerning desirism, I do so precisely because I’m following the groundwork you both lay out in posts like these. It’s nothing personal, and I don’t ever want you [or Fyfe] to make the mistake of thinking that it is, lest we lose sight of the matter at hand.


PZ Myers’s latest post on Ray Kurzweil has gotten me thinking that he may be a dick after all.

Umm, yeah! IMO he pretty much always was.

Woo is the new witches taint.

Yes. So salient.


I am a little tired of the argument about what the most effective way of converting people is. That is an important point, but what about the larger question – what is the right thing to do?

According to Luke, the larger questions of applied ethics take too much time. He needs to hurry up and get a degree to give desirism a status that it hasn’t yet earned. Meanwhile, important questions fall by the wayside, and unfounded assertions are allowed to reign supreme. All that, and the fact that we don’t have professional philosophers around to think for us.


Patrick August 22, 2010 at 3:03 pm

Mark H: Here’s the problem with not naming names, or at least giving examples…

First, let me describe a two step politicians and theologians do. They make an argument which can be interpreted in two ways, one of which is expansive but controversial, and the other which is clearly true but so narrow that its trite. When they advance their argument, they insinuate the expansive position. But when they’re under attack they retreat to the narrow, trivial position. Then when the attack is over they expand again.

I don’t know if Plait is doing this. But he’s set off a conversation in which people are already interpreting him in such a way that this is happening, and I think it was predictable that it would occur.

Expansive but questionable sense: Atheists offend people constantly, and its getting worse over time. Our movement is filled with high name atheists who just make us enemies by screaming in people’s faces about how stupid they are. And ISN’T IT INTERESTING that so many people thought I/he was talking about PZ even though I/he didn’t mention him? These specific people, whom I/we arenot mentioning out of politeness, are bad for us as a group.

Narrow but trivial sense: Well, obviously there are jerks out there, and I/he was just addressing them. Look at internet flame wars, or youtube comment threads, and it doesn’t take that long to find someone who’s being incredibly offensive. I/he certainly didn’t mean anyone in particular, just, you know, the people who cross lines.

Watch the discussion. The two step between these two positions is already framing the conversation. I think this was predictable.


Mark H. August 22, 2010 at 5:27 pm

Patrick, I wouldn’t characterize the narrow interpretation of Plait’s talk as trite or trivial. It may be obvious, but obvious things need to be restated over and over. Does a team’s coach really need to tell his team to “go out there and win?” Do we really need more blogs, youtube videos, television shows, books, and lectures about how science is awesome? Is it really necessary to remind Americans of the liberties they and other Americans should enjoy? Is it worth it to talk about the Golden Rule?

Yes, always.

I have watched the conversation a little and it is one I’ve seen many times before in many different places. When a woman speaks out against the disadvantages a woman faces in science or business, she is accused of wanting special privileges or even of wanting to establish a matriarchy. When a racial minority speaks out against discrimination, he is accused of calling all of the majority racist. When Obama spoke of religious freedom in America, it was widely interpreted as an attack on Christianity. When anyone criticizes American policy, especially foreign policy, many Americans hear an attack on America itself. When I talk about my love for classical music, I get accused of denigrating more popular forms of music.

This is why I don’t believe your expansive reading is accurate. Too many times before I’ve seen criticism of a part be taken as an attack on the whole. It allows one to dodge the critique and hide behind indignation.

Ultimately, Phil Plait’s speech was a call for humility in the face of our common humanity and patience with how long it takes to change human nature. It took me years to give up on Christianity and I didn’t stop going to church until my final year of college. A large part of my leaving the faith was meeting too many Christians who were all too certain in religious matters while, with the same certainty, revealing staggering ignorance in areas of science, politics, history, and basic decency. Basically, too many Christians were being dicks about their faith.

One major source of dickishness is overconfidence and overcertainty, two things that are antithetical to skepticism. Remember the first of Bertrand Russell’s “Liberal Decalogue”: Do not feel absolutely certain of anything. It is very easy for skeptics and atheists to become so certain they are right that they start acting like dicks to outsiders. It’s easy because it’s practically instinct in any human group. Even the pastors at the church I used to attend warned his congregation about not being dicks when sharing their faith (even though he didn’t use those exact words). Plait wanted to remind his audience that, while it may feel good to act superior to a non-skeptic, it doesn’t make the world a better place.

Now, as for whether dickishness among skeptics is on the rise, I’m uncertain. However, as atheists and skeptics attract more attention among the wider population–thanks to Dawkins, Hitchens, Randi, Sagan, and all the others–whatever dickish behavior there is will become more visible. It already takes more than reason to get somebody on our side; it makes no sense to make it harder on ourselves by driving people away with dickishness.


Kip August 22, 2010 at 6:31 pm

Phil Plait needs to read Alonzo’s posts. Alonzo wasn’t disagreeing with everything Phil said, but was expanding on the nuances and explicating what parts were right and which weren’t.


Reginald Selkirk August 23, 2010 at 6:12 am


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