When skeptics turn dickish (I’m gonna catch hell for this one)

| 51 Comments

There’s been a lot of talk in the skeptical blogosphere about Phil Plait’s ‘don’t be a dick’ talk at TAM8. Since Phil didn’t quite get around to mentioning just who he was talking about or just what they said to illustrate his point (the sad story of the crying deist at the end doesn’t count), dickishness is not a real clear concept. However, I’m prepared to give an actual example that was (inadvertently, I hope!) provided by Phil himself in his recent appearance on The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (scroll to episode 267) with Steve Novella, Bob Novella, Rebecca Watson, Jay Novella, and Evan Bernstein.

Near the very end of the podcast, around 1:16:45, they finish the show with a regular feature, an interesting quote from someone. In this particular show the quotation was from Eliezer S. Yudkowsky, who is an interesting character in artificial intelligence and in the Singularity movement. (Full disclosure: I met Yudkowsky briefly after a talk on AI he gave some years ago.) At the end of Jay Novella’s reading of the quotation the Skeptics on the podcast first laugh and giggle and tee-hee about Yudkowsky’s name, and then Steve Novella (I think it was Steve from the voice) paraphrases the quotation, precisely reversing its meaning. There’s more laughing and giggling, and then Phil, joining in the laughter, identifies Yudkowsky as a solipsist: “He’s a solipsist,” and then wanders off into free associations to the Matrix.

And what was the quotation from Yudkowsky that elicited all the skeptical hilarity?

Here it is in its entirety:

The correspondence between reality and my beliefs comes from reality controlling my beliefs, not the other way around.

See? Yudkowsky’s obviously a solipsistic loon for thinking that reality should control … Oh. Um. Waitaminute.

Reality controlling one’s beliefs? As in … well … allowing something like (dare I say it?) empirical evidence to influence our mental models of the world? As in, oh, let’s say using tests against reality to evaluate our beliefs so as to modify them in order to increase their correspondence with reality, thereby building a close personal relationship with that reality?

WTF? That ain’t solipsism, boys and girls, that’s … wait for it … skepticism! Maybe even science! Whoa! Phil and the folks on SGU mocked Yudkowsky, laughing and giggling at him in public, for succinctly expressing what they themselves value, empirically based skepticism and science! Publicly mocking him after totally misconstruing what he said. Ain’t that a little on the dickish side?

I have great respect for both Plait and Novella and read both their blogs regularly, but I’m afraid they both screwed the pooch on this one and I cannot resist needling them about it. Just think, if Yudkowsky were a sensitive young female deist and Phil’s comforting arms .… Nope. We’ll draw a discreet curtain across the rest of that touching scene.

51 Comments

I’m with Dawkins on the dickishness discussion. There’s a time and a place for being dickish - and if you’re in a forum or debate setting with an audience (a situation effectively making it impossible for either debater to review his or her stances), the rhetoric is for the audience. Dickishness is called for in this situation; first you invalidate the opponents stances then drive the point home with some dickish humour, something that communicates with the audience.

If you’re having a one-on-one with someone, then you’ve got to be respectful and honest with them and their beliefs.

So yea, there’s a time and a place for it.

*grabs popcorn*

Well, this should be interesting.

Good topic. When it comes to live debates, where there may be press and video recordings, behavior is very important – it’s part of the message received by the audience. That’s far more important than the temporary thrill of publicly humiliating a creationist.

Further, one should know ahead of time who the debate opponent is, and if it would be a rollicking good occasion for dickishness, then the event should probably be avoided.

Yeah, that bit bothered me when I heard it too. I’m thinking there’s a good quote and then they start being, well… dickish about it.

It gets even worse though. Googling reveals that the quote actually came from the first-person character in a short story/long moral parable that Yudkowsky wrote, which argued for science over some of the sillier forms of solipsistic philosophy.

Note: the story is actually quite good, and I giggled in all the appropriate places.

Joel, thanks for the link. That essay really was hilarious.

About the SGU episode, has there been any word from Phil or the show noting their error in understanding?

Oooo shoes! Oh, I’m sorry got distracted.….

I guess I’m going to agree with Mike who agreed with Dawkins who agreed with Jefferson. Sometimes you need to be a dick. Dickishness has it’s place.

My favorite quote in support of dickishness comes from Jefferson himself:

“Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus. “

What a total dick!

The problem here isn’t being dickish. The problem here is that they were wrong.

Incidentally, while Yudkowsky does have some ideas that are likely to be incorrect, he writes very well and does a good job of encouraging critical thinking. It is also clear that of the Singularity proponents, he’s the most reasonable. He’s also a surprisingly good fiction writer and has been busy writing “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” a Harry Potter fanfic in which the premise is that Harry grew up around scientists and then tries to apply the scientific method to magic when he goes to Hogwarts. It is a bit preachy at points but overall is well done- http://www.fanfiction.net/s/5782108/1/

Joshua Zelinsky said:

The problem here isn’t being dickish. The problem here is that they were wrong.

No, it’s both. They gratuitously mocked his name, and they were flat wrong about the quotation. Having listened to it a number of times, my overall impression of the tone of the segment is its supercilious smugness.

Thanks for the defense! Remember that you don’t need to be smart to be skeptical of things that all your friends are skeptical about. Good rationality implies skepticism about many things, but most people of all sorts are bad rationalists, and most skeptics are not exceptions.

Well, I was about to give him a second chance after seeing his quote dragged through the mud, but the fact that he writes Harry Potter fanfics has sealed the deal for me! :b

Skepticism can be a fine thing, but as an end in itself it leaves something to be desired. It’s a useful tool, but like all tools it can be misused, and in the limit it can simply degenerate into sniping and negativism.

One of the things about reading Hume is his realization that serious skepticism reserves some skepticism for itself.

All - we were not wrong about the quote. Jay chose the quote because it reflects our skeptical philosophy.

What happened was that Hoppe completely misinterpreted our ironic humor at the end. My joke was that, if your belief corresponds to reality, how do you know from that alone that true reality is shaping your beliefs vs your beliefs shaping what you think reality is - since you are essentially comparing your beliefs to your beliefs about reality (no one has access to the true answers at the back of the book). Get the irony? Even schizophrenics think their reality is evidence-based.

But of course I am not advocating solipsism, and that was Phil’s joke. The answer is that we have to check our beliefs against objective evidence and other people as much as possible.

Further - we did not make fun of the guy’s name. We made fun of Jay’s inability to pronounce it - which is a running joke on the show.

MrG said:

Skepticism can be a fine thing, but as an end in itself it leaves something to be desired. It’s a useful tool, but like all tools it can be misused, and in the limit it can simply degenerate into sniping and negativism.

Well, skepticism by itself doesn’t really generate new knowledge, so of course there’s more to life, the universe, and everything than just being skeptical. You have to come up with ideas before skepticism can be applied to them.

Steven Novella said:

Get the irony?

I think you’ll find that most PT posters’ irony meters have either been fried or are calibrated to deal with much larger scales of irony due to their proximity to massive amounts of highly refined CreoTardTM-brand Stoopid (now with extra chunks!).

OK, I’ve listened to that segment again in the light of Novella’s explanation, and if I tilt my head just right and squint my eyes, I can see a faint glimmer of the irony he claims for it. But I gotta squint real hard to make the reality consistent with the explanation.

Anyone who isn’t in on the in-jokes of the podcast is going to hear it as dickish.

Steven Novella said: What happened was that Hoppe completely misinterpreted our ironic humor at the end.

Thanks for clearing that up, Steve. Hoppe’s reality didn’t conform to my beliefs, and I was starting to wonder if I’d had a stroke. I was going to say something, but you saved a lot of time.

Please, ignore people like this and keep having fun on the show. That’s why we listen.

I agree that we often assume that our listeners listen to multiple episodes and basically get our philosophy and running jokes. We don’t always pause to explain the background of our jokes. It’s a delicate balance and I admit we don’t always pull off our humor.

But we do expect that regular listeners understand that we are skeptical.

Honestly, I was shocked at your take. It seemed totally obvious to me that we were not belittleing the quote itself.

RBH said: OK, I’ve listened to that segment again in the light of Novella’s explanation, and if I tilt my head just right and squint my eyes, I can see a faint glimmer of the irony he claims for it.

Steve’s version is the way I heard it the first time. I don’t think I was tilting my head or squinting my eyes when I was listening to it…

Or maybe I’m irony-deficient. [shrug] I can live with that, having done so for almost 70 years.

Gaebolga said:

I think you’ll find that most PT posters’ irony meters have either been fried or are calibrated to deal with much larger scales of irony due to their proximity to massive amounts of highly refined CreoTardTM-brand Stoopid (now with extra chunks!).

Yes, Loki trolls are hard to detect because sincere creationuts easily top them on a regular basis.

Jane, you ignorant slut, for some jokes context is everything.

Which is probably a good reason why one shouldn’t put too much weight on dickishness either way. Hey, we’re human. Miscommunications are frequent. Because of this, its stupid to ignore an argument just because you think the arguer is acting like a jerk. Maybe their choice of language has a point, and you just don’t see it.

At the same time, it is also fairly stupid to act like a jerk in cases where it may increase miscommunication, because we’ve got enough problems with that already. Use invective to clarify your point. Treat it the way you do the rest of your language. Comedians don’t just sling together a bunch of curse words and bang, get funny, and no one here is going to sling together a bunch of insults and bang, be convincing. Comedians wield profanity and insult effectively to make their point. So should we.

So, Steven, what you are saying is that you didn’t think you and Phil were being dickish but Richard did?

One would almost think that this dickishness thing that Phil expounded on seems to be all relative. Which would make Phil’s DBAD speech a waste of time, misleading and harmful to skepticism in general.

Steve, thanks for clarifying that.

@Novella- as a philosophical exercise most freshman learn that it is not possible to “prove” an objective reality. Pragmatism forces us to assume that reality is real. Having read Yodkowsky’s entire story (the one from which you mined the quote) it seems highly unlikely he is advocating solipsism or that he himself is a solipsist.

So yes, you and Plait were wrong and being dicks for mocking a man over a position he does not hold. Good job.

Oh, and I’ll note that judging by his comment above Yudkowsky apparently didn’t get the joke either.

Dude - as I wrote above (apparently you did not take the time to read those comments or you did not understand them) we were not accusing him of solipsism. Have you even listened to the episode for yourself?

It’s one thing to be humor impaired, or perhaps our humor was impaired, but I find the level of “dickishness” in these accusations rather ironic.

Frankly I think Plait is a hypocrite. Deny moon landings and he’ll put a can of whoop-ass on you faster than you can “homeopathy works.” And, the same goes for homeopathy woo lovers, too.

But the biggest dick-move is, in fact, the labeling others as dicks without bothering to actually prove the point. The whole “dick by innuendo” thing which is used to minimize others and is just an exercise in High School level character assassination.

Ultimately, I think the whole “gnu atheist/DBAD” stuff will fail as just another silly-ass exclusionary tactic by people who to be more important than they are and can’t raise to prominence because their particular tactic of accomidationism is just as fail-sauce today as it has always been in the past. You cannot appease tyrants or “ask nicely” for your civil/legal rights. It takes a battle.

Whether the accommodationist wishes it to be true or not.

I think Moody, Plait and their apologist really need to read MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Then look in the mirror. They are on the wrong side, just as the white liberal who told the black man to, for the sake of social peace, to wait for those equal rights ‘until times are better.’

A time that hadn’t come for a hundred years. And without the civil rights movement, may still have never come.

Steven Novella said:

Dude - as I wrote above (apparently you did not take the time to read those comments or you did not understand them) we were not accusing him of solipsism. Have you even listened to the episode for yourself?

It’s one thing to be humor impaired, or perhaps our humor was impaired, but I find the level of “dickishness” in these accusations rather ironic.

That may be so in this example.

But the larger truth is that, even if the example is wrong, it still doesn’t excuse Plait from his hypocritical dickish hypocrisy. He’s a dick when he feels it’s necessary, like moon landings or homeopathy or anti-vaxxers. That is indisputable and leaves him without room to make his hypocritical DBAD talk where he engages in innuendo character assassination against “gnu Athiests.”

It’s like a scene from a “bad High School” movie.

Which would make Phil’s DBAD speech a waste of time,

*ding*

and, btw, this thread as well.

May I suggest this thread is an unproductive dead end and that measures might be in order to put it out of its misery?

This is frustrating. There’s plenty to criticize in things Yudkowsky’s actually said or written; mocking him for something he didn’t actually say is a waste of time and makes it easier for others to disregard genuine criticisms.

MosesZD said:

Steven Novella said:

Dude - as I wrote above (apparently you did not take the time to read those comments or you did not understand them) we were not accusing him of solipsism. Have you even listened to the episode for yourself?

It’s one thing to be humor impaired, or perhaps our humor was impaired, but I find the level of “dickishness” in these accusations rather ironic.

That may be so in this example.

But the larger truth is that, even if the example is wrong, it still doesn’t excuse Plait from his hypocritical dickish hypocrisy. He’s a dick when he feels it’s necessary, like moon landings or homeopathy or anti-vaxxers. That is indisputable and leaves him without room to make his hypocritical DBAD talk where he engages in innuendo character assassination against “gnu Athiests.”

It’s like a scene from a “bad High School” movie.

The phrase “hoist on own petard” comes to mind.

Ichthyic said:

Which would make Phil’s DBAD speech a waste of time,

*ding*

and, btw, this thread as well.

I’m not so sure. Speaking as an outsider of this internecine battle, I appreciate what Phil did here. The crux of the argument is that being rude is counterproductive in trying to convince people who disagree with you. One of the key strengths of both science in general and skepticism in particular is its intellectual humility. That is, you don’t claim to know something you don’t and you are constantly trying to prove yourselves wrong along the way. But, if you are rude the credit for humility goes away.

This argument applies directly to my side, too, and with even more force. Pride is a sin and humility is a virtue. I cannot do what Phil did with respect to skeptics and I wouldn’t presume to do so. As Phil noted in his speech we get defensive when outsiders accuse us. So, skeptics have to speak with skeptics and believers with believers if we are going to have any hope of having a positive discourse amongst ourselves.

I think the hypocrisy charge of Phil is overwrought. Hypocrisy is applying different standards to yourselves than to others. If his argument was believers ought not be rude but skeptics can be rude than that would be hypocrisy. Rather, at worst, he fell short of his ideals. Phil noted that he learned the lesson of not being rude from his marriage. There’s another thing that you learn from being married a long time. Apologize quickly and without equivocation or spin. That will make your message more persuasive than any amount of moralizing can do.

@ Novella- To answer your questions, yes and yes. I still think you have taken one quote out of context, and the estimable Dr Plait calling Yudkowsky a solipsist is incorrect. So you have quote mined, misrepresented, and mocked. Dr Plait engaging in that with you puts him in an uncomfortable position.

I understand you are feeling defensive here, so I will gladly overlook your criticism of my apparently meager reading comprehension.

Dude said:So you have quote mined, misrepresented, and mocked. Dr Plait engaging in that with you puts him in an uncomfortable position.

Okay. I’ll try to break it down for you one more time.

The segment at the end of the episode is called the “skeptical quote.” The SGU cast read an inspiring quote by a skeptic at the end of each episode every week. Being included in the segment usually means they agree with the quote. Striving to have beliefs that conform to reality is pretty much the definition of being a skeptic. They read this quote because a fan sent it in. Skeptics like it.

Steve, being funny, asked how he could actually know if this statement was true. He was being “meta-skeptical” of the skeptical quote. That’s why Rebecca immediately says, “You just blew my mind.” rather than something along the lines of “Yudkowsky is an idiot.” Rebecca and Steve both obviously don’t think Yudkowsky is a solipsist.

Nobody quote mined anything. Nobody deliberately misrepresented anyone. Think about it. The SGU gang had probably never even heard of Yudkowsky before this quote. He’s not exactly a household name. Why would they care about his reputation? Why would they lie to attack him? You’re essentially accusing them of dishonest character assassination. What possible motive could they have for that? This is crazy conspiracy theory type stuff. Is there a Transhumanist Truther movement I missed?

08/25 was an inside job!

After listening to the segment again, I’ll grant you that maybe you intended to just make fun of the intentional misrepresentation made. It doesn’t come over that way to me though.

I will also say that if I had to pick a side in the DBAD (I hesitate to call it a debate) conversation I would be opposite Dr Plait’s spot at the table. Maybe my own bias is not letting me see your attempted humor clearly.

I see the entire DBAD meme as little more than nonsense. Ridicule clearly has a place in public discourse with irrational people. So I’m a bit annoyed with the DBAD and accommodationist crowd.

Ichthyic said:

Which would make Phil’s DBAD speech a waste of time,

*ding*

and, btw, this thread as well.

You disagree on misleading and harmful to skepticism? Why?

The DBAD speech seems to have had blog posts on every site, yet none of them know exactly what Mr Plait is saying, except for their own interpretation. All your interpretation does is tell people how you think, not what he meant.

The Curmudgeon said:

Good topic. When it comes to live debates, where there may be press and video recordings, behavior is very important – it’s part of the message received by the audience. That’s far more important than the temporary thrill of publicly humiliating a creationist.

Further, one should know ahead of time who the debate opponent is, and if it would be a rollicking good occasion for dickishness, then the event should probably be avoided.

Yep one should always avoid a debate where there’s any possibility of confrontation.

Dude said:

I will also say that if I had to pick a side in the DBAD (I hesitate to call it a debate) conversation I would be opposite Dr Plait’s spot at the table.

So, you’re pro-BAD instead? If that’s the case why take him to task for being a dick here? Granted he got the target wrong, but that still doesn’t explain how you can simultaneously advocate for the “do be…” side and then complain when someone actually does be. I mean, its pretty pedantic on your part to complain that someone who disagrees with you on an argument style is utilizing the argument style you support.

Ridicule clearly has a place in public discourse with irrational people.

This post, in fact.

Kevin B said: The phrase “hoist on own petard” comes to mind.

Or to give full version…”The enginer hoist by his own petard.”

Modern literal translation being “the gunner blown up by his own mortar”. (late 18th to early 19th century mortar shells had a tendency towards premature detonation. Since the fuse timing was done by hand, setting the fuse to a reasonable but slightly too short time led to “…bombs bursting in air…”)

–W. H. Heydt

Old Used Programmer

It is excusable to misinterpret what was said on the show, and I will accept my share of the blame for being obscure in my humor (although I am still surprised by that).

But it is not excusable to try to tell me what I intended. I know exactly what I was thinking when I said it, and there is no way for anyone to disagree with my explanation without simultaneously calling me a liar.

Perhaps what some are missing here is that you don’t treat a hard working skeptic that you may disagree with, or who may have made a mistake the same way you treat a creationist who campaigns against science. It reeks of skeptical one-upsmanship.

@eric- Because hypocrisy is ugly. If a person objects to the use of ridicule and then engages in it… That creates a credibility problem for them at the least.

@Novella- Ok, you are correct about no one being able to genuinely criticize your intent, especially after you have explained it. But you should also realize that your intent isn’t going to count for much when you say things that other reasonable people will take differently than you intend. Ask Howard Cosell.

Dude - But I don’t think this blog post was based upon a reasonable interpretation. Ryan got it exactly correct - there were multiple reasons to interpret it as we intended. If our comments caused confusion, that should have prompted an e-mail, not a scathing blog post dripping with sarcasm and condescension based upon a complete misinterpretation.

Which dovetails with my other point - sarcasm and ridicule should not be machine guns that you spray indiscriminately at every target, but rather a sniper attack at those who deserve it. Which is also why I do not think Phil is being hypocritical - I don’t think he ever said that ridicule is always inappropriate.

Steven Novella said:

Dude - But I don’t think this blog post was based upon a reasonable interpretation. Ryan got it exactly correct - there were multiple reasons to interpret it as we intended. If our comments caused confusion, that should have prompted an e-mail, not a scathing blog post dripping with sarcasm and condescension based upon a complete misinterpretation.

Man, you should have seen the first draft! :)

Which dovetails with my other point - sarcasm and ridicule should not be machine guns that you spray indiscriminately at every target, but rather a sniper attack at those who deserve it. Which is also why I do not think Phil is being hypocritical - I don’t think he ever said that ridicule is always inappropriate.

If by “deserve” one means a target that through malice (which I don’t suggest) or failure to attend to the way one’s words can be easily misinterpreted (which I do), produced public comments that are problematic, then I don’t think I “spray[ed] indiscriminately” at undeserving targets. I listen to SGU a fair amount, scanning the new ‘cast descriptions in my reader to see who’s on and what the topics are, and then listen to just the segments that interest me. So I don’t have the SGU tribal customs, rituals, and folkways down very well, as I suspect a fair number of people don’t. What I heard was mockery plain and simple. I may well be irony-deficient, but even with an explanation of that instance I still have to squint to see anything but mockery. And I’m not unique in that; see Joel’s comment above.

I’ll leave this thread open for a few more hours in case anyone else wants to take a shot at me, then we’ll call it a day.

Richard - my policy is to distinguish between those who generally mean well are are skeptical and those who generally do not mean well and are frauds, cranks, or have an anti-scientific agenda. My response is not based solely on what I think they said, but also on their track record. But that’s me.

I actually wrote about this in detail here:http://skepticblog.org/2009/10/05/s[…]-on-skeptic/

That should serve as my final response on the topic.

RBH said: sarcasm and ridicule should not be machine guns that you spray indiscriminately at every target, but rather a sniper attack at those who deserve it.

And, I would add, you should put as much care and attention into them as you would any other part in your argument.

Look Dude et al., Eddie Murphy makes funny jokes that contain the f-bomb. This does not mean that using the f-bomb will make you just as funny. Its not a magic word, Eddie crafts his jokes and language with care.

Same thing here. Hitchens may be very good at using sarcasm and ridicule to make a compelling point. This does not mean that merely by throwing ridicule at a subject you will be just as compelling. Too many people seem to use ridicule and profanity as a substitute for good argument rather than a means of emphasizing an argument that is already good. They subconsciously treat these techniques as a form of magic. They aren’t. They won’t make a poorly argued point better. And in a teenager-like rush to say dirty things just because its cool, they undermine the mainstream scientific position rather than supporting it. They increase religious fanaticism rather than reducing it.

Apologismos! I did not listen to the original, only read the blog post after Google sent me here. Please consider the comment withdrawn; if the issue is in contention I shalln’t offer any force one way or the other.

eric- you said, “Too many people seem to use ridicule and profanity as a substitute for good argument rather than a means of emphasizing an argument that is already good. They subconsciously treat these techniques as a form of magic.”

To bring this around to the larger topic again, with regard to the alleged persons the DBAD talk was aimed at, can you name one prominent or relevant member of the skeptical/science community who has ever done what you describe? I don’t think that mythical beast exists…

Steven Novella said:

Dude - But I don’t think this blog post was based upon a reasonable interpretation. Ryan got it exactly correct - there were multiple reasons to interpret it as we intended. If our comments caused confusion, that should have prompted an e-mail, not a scathing blog post dripping with sarcasm and condescension based upon a complete misinterpretation.

Which dovetails with my other point - sarcasm and ridicule should not be machine guns that you spray indiscriminately at every target, but rather a sniper attack at those who deserve it. Which is also why I do not think Phil is being hypocritical - I don’t think he ever said that ridicule is always inappropriate.

Ok, I’ve listened to that segment for a third time. Having never listened to your podcast before, being unfamiliar with your format, and given your explanation of intent, it still comes over as ridicule to me and not the good natured humor you meant it to be.

RBH’s post may have been excessive and a more severe than your podcast warranted, but I think his central criticism of the “quote” segment with Dr Plait (a person I really admire, except for the DBAD thing) is valid. Few who aren’t intimately familiar with your ‘cast are going to get the humor, and it seems like Plait is being a bit dickish.

Maybe this illustrates some inherent trait of the DBAD/BAD argument, that dickishness is entirely subjective, and the entirety of the argument within the skeptical community is nothing more than pointless self-flagellation.

Arguments aside, I decided to listen to the entire podcast as a result of this. I like the way you guys and gal dealt with Ray Kurzweil’s silliness. I’m going to listen to your interview with Aubrey de Grey as well… maybe more too.

And that looks like a good note on which to close the thread.

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This page contains a single entry by Richard B. Hoppe published on September 8, 2010 3:41 AM.

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