Aug 302010

I’m very late coming into this discussion, so perhaps this post won’t have much impact. But it feels good to put one’s thoughts in order, so I decided to write this piece.

I’ve followed with some degree of care the ongoing debate within the skeptical community about Phil Plait’s now famous “Don’t be a dick” speech at the most recent JREF meeting. When a video of the speech was posted I watched and listened carefully. Most of the salient points about his speech have already been made by others, so what little novel input I can give comes more from a personal and therefore anecdotal perspective.

First off, I have to agree with those critical of Plait in that Plait segues between a person-to-person encounter to impersonal or public pronouncements without clearly demarcating the two. I completely agree with Plait that an in-your-face confrontation is not likely to sway opinion. I remember some years ago reading in Fortean Times about the “moon landing hoax.” While I never seriously doubted that we went to the moon and back, I was significantly flummoxed by the claims that the photographs taken on the moon were faked. Remember, The United States federal government lied to the public about all sorts of much more significant issues like Watergate, Vietnam casualties, and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, just to name a few. Faking photographs as a propaganda move during the cold war frankly didn’t seem that far fetched to me.

Several years after being exposed to the Fortean Times article I ran into a website that went into great detail about the nature of the photography on the moon. Frankly it was a sort of “face palm” moment for me, as it made me realize that I was a total beginner at understanding photography and optical perspective, and was easily taken in by the bogus arguments of the moon landing “hoax” proponents.

In the meantime I attended a social gathering at the Seattle Space Needle in celebration of Yuri Gagarin’s space flight. There I met a man who had worked for NASA. Being a genuinely curious person, I asked him his thoughts on the “moon landing hoax.” His reaction was immediate and totally negative. In essence he stated that the claims were so prima facie ludicrous that they weren’t even worthy of debating. Needless to say, I didn’t come away with any greater understanding of why the photos seemed anomalous. Was he a “dick?” Yeah, he was kind of a dick.

I suspect Plait was put in the unenviable position of actually having to name names if he decided to create a provisional definition of what constitutes a “dick.” But he didn’t and therein lies the big problem. You can’t have a meaningful debate if you’re using fuzzy terms. It reminds me of high school, where we spent inordinate amounts of time arguing what rock bands were “cool.” Concepts like “cool” and “dickishness” are human valuational constructs, and as such lie outside of the realms of science or logic.

One of the more thoughtful rejoinders to Plait’s speech was made by Richard Dawkins, who argued that it’s often third parties reading these exchanges who are swayed, rather than the direct target of the criticism. From my perspective, I can totally agree with this.

Previously I’d written about my encounters with the tracts of Jack T. Chick. While I was never a particularly devout Christian, I still clung to that belief system up until I was about 17. But by the time I got to high school, various things began to make me confused. While I was a lukewarm Lutheran, I had a friend who was a fundamentalist, or at least his parents were fundamentalists. At the time, I was a big fan of Houdini, and I remember my friend’s mother telling me that perhaps Houdini was in league with the Devil, who enabled his escapes. Well, I knew that was obvious bullshit, so cracks in the façade were beginning to form.

My fundamentalist friend took me to a revival meeting, where I witnessed dozens, if not hundreds of people speaking in tongues. As you might imagine, this really blew my mind! I asked one of the Lutheran pastors about this, and he gave me a rather unctuous and dismissive answer, to the effect that “we really don’t do that.” This was one of my first introductions to the schismatic nature of the Christian religion.

But the big break came by reading Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. It was a sort of humor that went far beyond the simplicity of anything I’d ever seen on TV; sort of like Mad Magazine on steroids. Obviously I had to look up a lot of words, and ask my father about a lot of historical background, but in general I found it very funny.

Bierce was blasphemous, to be sure. But he spread his blasphemy around quite evenly, which suggested that religion was a pathology of mankind, and had existed in many forms and many places since the beginning of recorded history. He was making one of the simplest and most fundamental of atheist arguments, albeit in a roundabout and oblique way; everyone thinks their religion it the One True Religion, and that every other religion is false. Without solid evidence, belief in any particular religion is no better than belief in any other. Belief in the divinity of Thor is just as valid as belief in the divinity of Jesus, which is to say there is no good reason to believe in the divinity of either one!

Was Bierce a “dick?” Well, my mother, who was a Lutheran, certainly thought so, although she would never use such crude language… But my point is that I was reading Bierce as a rather disengaged third party. He certainly didn’t write; “Matt Crowley, you are a fool and an asshole for believing this religious garbage.” I agree with Dawkins that judicious application of humor, sarcasm, wit, and yes, blasphemy, can actually win hearts and minds.

Later on, I found Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian, was utterly blown away by it, and never looked back. Russell’s demeanor was much more urbane than Bierce’s and of course his book was not intended as humor but as a somewhat technical argument against religious belief.

Is Dawkins a “dick?” I don’t think so, but of course I also think Led Zeppelin was the greatest rock band of all time. Both “dick” and “greatest” are human valuational constructs, which cannot be empirically or logically defined. I find Dawkins to be as urbane as Russell, at least in his on-camera presentations. His writings are sometimes more biting. But I think Dawkins’ vitriol is entirely justified, as his enemy, organized religion, is one of the most destructive and evil institutions in the history of mankind.

So who’s a “dick?” well it pains me to say this, but I think Penn Jillette is a dick. Like Ted Nugent, Penn’s personality is so over-the-top that he ends up being a poor spokesman for his cause. Penn’s constant resort to loud-mouthed vulgarity, mockery, and ad hom attacks on his opponents are entirely counterproductive. A sad figure is just that, sad, but when a sad figure is mercilessly mocked, they become a martyr.

I’ve met Penn, albeit briefly, and my impression is that his on-camera persona is very much like his real life persona. I remember trying to congratulate him on mentioning Avogadro’s number in their act, but evidently I misquoted the exponent. Penn was quick to correct me, smugly and condescendingly. I’ve had the pleasure of spending quality time with Teller, and he is perhaps the most genteel man I’ve ever met, diametrically opposite to Penn’s behavior. The great mistake that Penn makes is mocking those who really don’t deserve it. It’s disturbing to see ordinary people being used as guinea pigs to demonstrate a point, like signing a petition against “Dihydrogen Monoxide”, or drinking tap water claimed to be bottled water. You are a professional magician, you have staged the con, yet you make people look like fools for behaving in the very way you coerced them to.

Is PZ Meyers a “dick?” I don’t think so, but then again I think Caravaggio was the greatest painter of all time. I can’t prove either assertion empirically or logically. It seems to me that Meyers picks and chooses his targets carefully, and his targets are eminently worthy of being called out.

Taking a step back here, I think Plait made an unfortunate logical transition at the beginning of his speech, namely by equating a face-to-face interaction with (presumably) what is written on the Internet. It hardly bears mentioning, but the relative facelessness of the Internet has ramped up the level of vitriol and meanness in ALL areas of social interaction, not just skepticism.

I’m curious as to Plait’s take on pre-Internet “dicks.” How about H.L. Mencken? Ambrose Bierce? The Chicago Seven? Again we don’t know, because Plait didn’t specify. I can’t be the first person to have mentioned this, but it’s kind of like Joe McCarthy claiming there were “X” number of communists within the Federal government, yet not naming them. If there REALLY was such a problem, you have to be specific. It’s like taking your car that won’t start to a mechanic and being told “Your car’s really being a dick.”

I’m also pained by watching the near-fanatical and overwrought defense of Plait’s speech. It seems to me the point was made the first time around, and further hand-wringing only comes across as self-righteous moral superiority. “Let he who is without dick cast the first dick.” Jesus dude, gimme a break, this bleat sounds like Bono.

To summarize my own take on the subject from personal experience, I don’t find all biting wit to be counter-productive to effective “outreach.” Sometimes “biting wit” goes too far and becomes venal and ugly, like certain episodes of South Park. I can understand why Plait chose not to name names as being examples of “dicks” as this would be grossly divisive toward skepticism as a whole. Yet this is why this issue will never be resolved; unless you name names, or provisionally define what “dickish” behavior is, you cannot meaningfully discuss it, anymore than you can meaningfully say who the “greatest” rock band is.

 Posted by on 08/30/2010 Opinion

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