skeptics get a wag of the finger from phil plait

Phil Plait urges skepticism in moderation and without harsh criticism. By using rather hard criticism of skeptics on the front lines.

Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil has been devoting a good deal of time to talking about his TAM speech known in the science and skeptical blogosphere as the “don’t be a dick speech.” I’ve mentioned it in a pseudo-rebuttal to Frank Swain’s critiques of today’s skeptics, and thought to leave it at that. Until, of course, I saw just how much this speech is being used to reinforce that persistent a wag of the finger to skeptics, that old criticism of how we’re just so damn mean. Now, to be fair, when Phil says it, he’s not using it as an argument about tone and civility to deflect serious scientific and factual questions, but more about the attitude some people can get when they simply discover another way to be intolerant of others and their contrasting opinions. The part that stood out for me was a point which was often interpreted as a direct pot-shot at PZ…

When you are dealing with someone who disagrees with you on some matter, what is your goal? What are you trying to accomplish? Insulting them, yelling at them, calling them brain-damaged, or morons, or baby-rapers, may make you feel good. [ … ] It may help you vent, it may help you relieve frustration, it may help you rally the troops, it may even ferment some people to take action, and to be honest, it may allow you to feel smug and superior, at least in that moment. But is your goal to win a cheap point, or is your goal to win the damn game?

If you want to see the speech for yourself, the video is posted on his blog, as well as links to reactions to the speech, as well as, in my opinion, overly emotional accounts of how Phil’s friends received it. And it really is interesting to try and take a look at why Phil cares about whether skeptics get a bad reputation by relying on a dogma of their own, in which everyone must either conform to their worldviews or they’re a legitimate target of ridicule and are but one step away from the likes of Ken Ham, Deepak Chopra, or the Templeton Foundation, just waiting for the right moment to force creationism into science class. Unlike many of us who are devoted to trying to spread critical thinking and fact check bad science journalism, but do this mainly in our spare time, a brief period between work, study and daily chores, Phil does this for a living. He’s trying to look at this from the long term position, dreading that today’s skeptics may be dismissed as nothing more than bullies, cynics and shrill internet shock jocks who tar all people with different ideas with the same brush if we let those who do it call the shots about the direction of skeptical movements.

And to be objectively fair, quite a few of us do play that shock jock role at least once in a while, myself included. I’m all for snark and sarcasm, but what Phil sites are outright examples of verbal abuse that should be meted out judiciously, rather than just mixed with hyperbole and shouted from the rooftops. However, I still say that it is occasionally appropriate to call someone an imbecile, especially when whining about tone is being used to escape valid criticism and no matter how many times skeptics and scientists try nicely and politely, the cranks and lunatics in question simply refuse to even consider the voice of reason, portraying themselves as victims the second you let them know that you can tear their pseudoscientific theories to shreds. And it’s those utterly contemptible champions of conspiracy and pseudoscience who don’t deserve our civility. Although we have to make sure that abuse isn’t all we met out, and there’s a valid argument to support the insult they deserved.

# science // communication / skepticism / skeptics

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