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

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.