Monday, July 12, 2010

The TAM8 Watershed

There were many speeches, presentations, and ideas that covered a diverse range of topics at TAM8.  I would love to be able to recount them all with perfect clarity and understanding in this blog, but I have neither the memory nor the depth of knowledge to do them justice.  The James Randi Educational Foundation says that videos of the speeches will be available soon, so I want to encourage people to watch the videos and perhaps even purchase the DVDs when they are available.

And here is the video of Phil's speech:

There was a theme that developed over the weekend in some of these speeches that I think will be remembered as an overall tone for the conference and perhaps as a watershed moment in the skepticism movement.  Although Carol Tavris and Steve Cuno had similar things to say, I am referring most to Phil Plait’s speech, in which he implored us, all of us, to craft our message with the goal of effectively promoting skepticism, not just expressing ourselves.  It seems that his speech has ended up being informally entitled the “Don’t Be A Dick” speech.

Early in the speech, Phil asked the audience how many of us at one time believed something we now consider silly.  He rattled off some examples of things like horoscopes, flying saucers, etc.  A lot of us raised our hands, which didn’t seem to surprise anyone.  Then Phil asked us how many of us changed our minds about those things because someone insulted us into sharing their view by calling us stupid.  Not very many hands stayed up after that.  Which is the public relations problem we skeptics are having that he highlighted in his speech.

Phil related a story that I thought was particularly poignant.  He was giving a talk at a school somewhere in the South.  Being an astronomer, he talked about the age of the Earth, our solar system, the universe, etc.  A particular teenage student was a young Earth creationist and had prepared some questions for him.  She had clearly gone to websites like Answers in Genesis to research and prepare for this chance to set him right.  *

Her ideas were wrong.  He explained how her questions about the Moon do lead to the conclusions of a young Earth until all the variables are taken into account.  What he didn’t do was berate her, insult her, or mock her beliefs.  He took the time to encourage her to pursue all the information on the topic and how those facts were discovered.  She was clearly a bright kid.  She had the basic tool kit of a good scientist in that she was curious, knew that she needed to research her position, and then did so.  That her sources were poorly informed isn’t her fault and poking fun of her would not have encouraged her to expand her knowledge or critical thinking skills.

It is tempting to loose our patience with irrationality.  Hearing the same tired and long debunked concepts trotted out time and time again is frustrating.  Phil acknowledged that, but stressed that we skeptics would be better served by being diplomats for reason rather than warriors.  Since being aggressive and insulting, however satisfying it might feel, alienates potential future allies by pushing them away from skepticism altogether and into the open arms of familiar irrationality.

If we are to set for ourselves the goal of reaching people and helping reason become valued, then our tactics need to be taken into account.  I think the following analogy demonstrates this TAM theme:  If we want to carve a beautiful sculpture from block of stone, we will be more successful by carefully chipping away at the unwanted stone to reveal the statue within, than to blast the block with a single dramatic explosion.

Skeptics have been debating this for years and honestly there is nothing groundbreaking here.  What makes Phil Plait’s speech important is that it illustrated with eloquence a theme that was expounded upon at TAM8 by other speakers and guests alike, becoming an important talking point there that has already reached far beyond conference itself and perhaps will influence our outreach for years to come.

*  I've made a change in that paragraph.  Originally I had written that the girl in the story was in elementary school.  Phil tweeted me with the correction that she was in high school, so older than I had implied.  That was a memory and comprehension failure on my part.  Sorry folks.


Liz Ditz said...

Thanks for writing this, and for your thoughtfulness over the issue.

I couldn't be there, but I've started a running round-up of posts about TAM8. I've added yours.

Michael Meadon said...

Nice write-up.

As you say, nothing new here. The exact same debate goes on between the "framers" and "anti-accomodationists" in the atheism debate. It seems we'll always have a mix of strategies - snark from some, in-depth pieces from others, insults but a third group, and so on. Perhaps shifting the proportion of people in the "critical and snarky" camp to the "critical but nice" camp would be an improvement.

I wonder... is there scientific research on this?

Billtannica said...

Just a couple of points. I made an error in how I recalled the story and got the age of the girl wrong. I wish that I had fact checked more carefully while writing, but that just goes to show that my memory really isn't up to the task of recalling all the great speeches at TAM8 perfectly.

It is worth noting that what Phil didn't do (humiliate her) is not as important as what he did do (encourage her.) She went into that question and answer session seeing him as an adversary of her beliefs and instead found him to be someone who was supportive of her research efforts, who encouraged her to do more. I have no idea if she applied her obvious intelligence and courage to continuing to satisfy her curiosity with more and better research. But I do think that it is more likely that she looked into the science after that than to only expose herself to creationist misinformation. If so, then she took some small, tentative steps towards critical thinking.

Liza said...

In part of Phil's speech, he implored everyone to simply "think about your objective" before responding to someone who might ordinarily receive your snark. If your objective is simply to make a fool of them (or to treat yourself to a brief feeling of superiority) then your response to them will be different than if your objective is to attempt to change their mind. You won't change anyone's mind by insulting them -- but you have a chance at helping them learn if you encourage them to seek out the correct information on their own.

I enjoyed hearing the speakers touch on this point (because so many of them did). There is rarely a single "AH HA!" moment when a person moves from belief into reason. It's done in increments... and if YOU have a chance to inspire one of those increments, then you've got a better chance with kindness and encouragement than insults.

Yes, nothing new, but certainly a worthwhile reminder.

Anonymous said...

It might be worth pointing out that there's a difference between being blunt or forceful or forthright, and being insulting. Dawkins's "The God Delusion" is blunt and forthright, but not, IMHO, insulting. Of course, it's often perceived as being insulting, and that's something to take into account.

Right now, I'm thinking the criterion should be: let's say it's years later, and the brand of woo you're fighting has gone the way of the dodo. Someone shows you the message you posted. Do you think "yeah, I like how I put that", or "gee, I was such a dick back then"?