The Amazing Dick Talk

Hemant has already posted about this, and there will most certainly be others to follow, but one of the more controversial topics of discussion at the Amazing Meeting 8 last weekend concerned Phil Plait’s “don’t be a dick” speech (there was so little time to write anything during TAM. The convention has a very tight schedule, filled with both official events and enough after hours extra-curricular activity to keep anyone fully occupied).

One of the biggest mysteries about the speech was exactly what the hell it was about. It certainly had us puzzled. If it had been framed as a “how to talk to non-skeptics” speech, it would have been well received. But, it was framed by Phil sheepishly apologizing, saying he couldn’t believe he was saying this, etc, etc. All this made it seem like the speech was aimed at someone in particular, though the speech itself was exceedingly vague. This sort of thing leads to a lot of misapprehensions. A lot of people there seemed to think it was directed at the blog world. Others the forum at the JREF. It finally came up that the subject was most probably a post by PZ Myers, who took a critical stance on another post made by astronomer Pamela Gay.

In the post in question (quite long, but an interesting read), PZ simply contradicted Pamela’s opinion, and stated that a science teacher should not give credit for an answer taken from mythology for a science test. And I back that opinion 100%. Was he a dick for saying this? Well, he didn’t call Pamela, or anyone else, any names. And, he wasn’t calling anyone out simply for having a different taste in a benign subject, like musical taste. He was taking a stance about science education standards, something he doesn’t pussy foot around with. And, he was also consistent with the standards he holds everyone else up to. That’s what I care about. Quite frankly, I think Pamela should have been called out for what seems to me to be an inconsistent, un-scientific, and mostly, un-educational stance. Is she bad because of this? No, of course not. Consider it course correction. But, if she’s going to strive to be one of the leaders of the skeptic movement, she needs to be consistent with her skepticism.

Any given person on any given street corner can think anything they want, of course. But, when Micheal Shermer questioned global warning, Massimo called him out. In his presentation. At TAM. And, thanks to revisiting the topic, Micheal Shermer changed his mind. Kudos to him. This makes him even more respectable in my mind. Will Pamela change her mind. Who knows. But, I think a skeptic that’s never really had to analyze their own beliefs isn’t much of a skeptic, if a skeptic at all.

I do agree with Phil’s key note: we shouldn’t be dicks. I just don’t think PZ was being a dick. We can’t hold different standards for different people, that’s just not right. Just know your stance, check yourself for harshness, and be consistent. That’s all PZ was doing as far as I can see. And just by saying he was being a dick is dismissing the actual point that was being made.

Phil also seems to be missing his own point. He and the whole audience got a good laugh at the expense of a moon landing denier during his speech that questioned Adam Savage earlier in the day. While things like that may seem easily dismissible to most skeptics, so is religion. And moon hoaxes, anti-vax, and religion are all beliefs. They are all part of how an individual thinks the world works. And, it is not easy to change people’s minds about any of these beliefs for precisely that reason. When you take King Kong off the island, you have removed the magic from people’s lives. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re being funny or not, you have taken it upon yourself to give people a more reason based world view. It’s worth it in the long run, but no one changes their beliefs without a fight, even if the belief seems silly to the skeptic.

———-

Ok, Phil Plait is saying that the subject of his talk was not PZ Meyrs, as I was led to believe, but more about a skeptic’s desired behavior in general when dealing with a believer. Which, I do agree with, we shouldn’t be rude and insulting (though I’m not familiar with anyone who actually does act that way). Though, I will say that since there is so much internet traffic about his talk … there may very well have been just a wee bit of vagueness about his speech, despite his claim to the contrary. I talked to a few people about it, and even the ones that liked it all had different ideas about what it was about (the JREF forums, “You’re Not Helping”, PZ, Pamela Gay on Skeptic’s Guide, as well as the “in general” answer). I do take him on his word though; Phil is a very nice guy from what I’ve seen. In fact, he could do with a couple of skull tattoos and a leather belt to give him a bit of an edge.

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