Here is a close approximation of my talk "Do Be A Dick" at SkeptiCamp Melbourne on October 22, 2011.
At The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas in 2010, astronomer Phil Plait gave a talk which has come to be known as "Don't be a dick". You might think from the title of my talk that I'm going to contradict him, but you would be wrong.
Phil's argument was that you don't win over true believers in nonsense by abusing them or calling them names, and I totally agree with this. That doesn't mean that I am an accommodationist, someone who leans backwards in order to see the opposition's position more clearly and to accept that their argument might have validity. Far from it. There are people and organisations out there which have to be attacked, and attacked strongly. It's how the attack is done that matters.
How the attack is done depends on who is being attacked. Someone once said, and then many people repeated, that you can't reason someone out of something they didn't reason themselves into in the first place, and you certainly can't abuse them out of it. If you are going to argue with people who have irrational ideas you have to pick your targets.
Just to keep everyone from falling asleep I'm going to show some pictures of people called Richard or Dick. Here is a dancing Dick.
We need to get this target thing out of the way. In all the years I've been fighting nonsense I've had the same policy – I'm not going to try to convert true believers, because these people are often incapable, through lack of education or thinking skills, to know that they are wrong. They often are simply taking the word of others whom they assume know what they are talking about or are authorities in some way. True believers also often have their beliefs as part of their self-image, so attacking their belief is attacking them personally. They are not idiots, they are not morons, they are misguided.
Dick Van Dyke with Mary Poppins – Cockney speaking Dick, where the producer was misguided in thinking that any actor could do a Cockney accent if he tried.
There are always exceptions, of course, and sometimes you have to address an individual. I do this when they attack me personally, because that makes them fair game. I am always polite, however, as I have found that this can drive them into paroxysms of mouth foam, particularly if they have started out with abuse and foul language. As an example I received an email once which suggested, no, said straight out, that everything I said was nonsense because I was constantly performing fellatio on myself. That is a paraphrase, by the way. I responded with:
I'm sorry that your lack of length prevents you from reaching your mouth and I can only imagine how embarrassing this can be for you, but your inadequacy is no reason to be impolite, no matter how envious you are of those who are better endowed.
A cowboy Dick, who is here for no apparent reason.
Sometimes you can have a go at an individual if that person has a particular standing, and it works quite well if that person happens to be in the room among other people that you might be able to make an impression on. As an example, in 2003 I spoke at a forum in Canberra on alternative medicine. The speaker who was going to follow me was the CEO of the Complementary Health Care Council of Australia, so I had a few quotes from her in my talk showing the mendacity of the quackery industry (I just put the words up on the screen behind me, but I didn't mention names). I set the scene at the start.
Here is the introduction slide for my presentation. Put your mouse over it to see what happened when I pressed "Next".
We had photographs taken together after the event, just to show that we could be civilised.
Moby Dick – I don't know why thinking about medical matters made me think of Moby Dick, but perhaps there's a herb for that.
My most prominent work is probably The Millenium Project, and I have never thought that what I do there will ever change the mind of someone whose mind is made up. When I have something to say it will be about the people and organisations who do the deceiving, and my hope is that fence-sitters looking on will see the dishonesty, the logical failures and the nastiness. Just to be clear, I will go after individuals if they are causing harm or are exemplars of the problem. I blame the perpetrator, not the victim. It's the bewitchers who are the problem, not the bewitched.
Dick Yorke – a bewitched Dick
Time is limited here, so I had better move fast.
Dick Johnson, a double-entendred fast Dick
When it comes to attacking ideas, ideologies and organisations then the rules change. I have no problem being ruthless with anti-vaccination liars, Holocaust deniers, 9/11 troofers and people like that. The rubbish that these people talk has to be exposed and opposed at every opportunity.
If someone asks you, for example, if you think that they should be concerned about getting a flu vaccination for their child because they had seen a homeopath on television talking about the dangers of all the dreadful ingredients in vaccines you should tell them to talk to their doctor and point out that the homeopath was almost certainly talking rubbish. You do this politely and with respect. If instead they tell you to read the AVN web site and tell them why they should endanger their child with Big Pharma poisons feel free to tell them to stop talking nonsense. If someone expresses an interest in the events in New York in September 2001 you can point them towards sources of good information. If they tell you to look at the film "Loose Change" and tell them where it is wrong feel free to be as aggressive as you like.
I had some woman contact me once to ask why her web site was in a list headed "Anti-vaccination Liars". I told her, politely, that it was there because she told lies about vaccines and if she stopped doing that I would remove it from the listing. When some troofer offered me "Loose Change" the other day as evidence of I don't know what (he didn't say) I told him to come up with something new and to stop bothering the grownups.
I need to say something at this point about accommodationism, which is the practice of accepting that the other side might have valid arguments and should be heard. This might be alright for religion, for example, where whether god exists or not can't be proved, but it certainly isn't alright for serious matters like vaccination or health. This week again an academic supposedly working on the public perception of vaccines criticised someone for mounting a frontal attack against the Australian Vaccination Network. To my knowledge this academic has been working on this single public health issue for over a decade and has about 40 people in the team. In that decade she and her team have achieved exactly nothing, and at one stage she even said that the AVN provided the balance that parents needed for an informed choice. Two years ago if a media outlet wanted to run a story on vaccination they went to Meryl Dorey at the AVN. In about two years Stop the AVN, which has no organisation or resources other than a Facebook presence, has brought the AVN to its knees. The media now go to real doctors like Robert Booy at Westmead for vaccine information and the AVN, if it is mentioned at all, is regarded as a fringe group of loonies. For a couple of days this week the AVN's Facebook page has looked like a bar brawl as they have been eating each other in an ever increasing frenzy. This is happening now because a group of people decided that we had had enough and would turn on the dickedness.
That's not to say that we weren't polite. As I said above, being polite drives them nuts, especially if they have already resorted to insults and abuse.
So here are some rules for how to be a dick and do it right.
Richard Prior – a sweary Dick
First, keep it as polite as you can. No matter what language they use at you, talk to them like you would to your mother. Or your own kids. Don't go down to their level because then they have won. That doesn't mean you can't point out lies and the misuse of language.
Steven Dick – a magical Dick
Don't try to trick people by being smarter than they are. You might very well be smarter but making a point of it isn't a winning strategy. Remember the Brights?
Richard Branson – an unembarrassable Dick
Ridicule is a useful tool, but don't give them a chance to ridicule you back. Try to appear sane and balanced at all times. (You can ignore this rule if you have several billion dollars.)
Be honest. Nobody likes a dishonest Dick, and again, you don't want to get down in the gutter with them.
Richard Burton – a drinking Dick
(Additional warning – if you drink too much you might forget you have divorced someone and marry them again.)
Keep your wits about you. Arguing with nutters after a night at Skeptics in the Pub will usually end badly.
Laurence Olivier playing the third Dick
Do your homework and be prepared. Laurence Olivier didn't go on stage to play Richard III until he had learnt all the lines and rehearsed. At the top of the front page of The Millenium project is a quote from Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall". In another part of the song he says "I'll know my song well before I start singing". Good advice.
And finally, remember that like a good rock band you should combine talents with others with the same objectives. Groups like Stop the AVN work because we are all pulling in the same direction and there are people to share the work.
And in case you think that slide is too subtle, remember that one of the musicians working on the album was Keith Richards.
Like the promo for this talk says – Do be a dick: Sometimes diplomacy and politeness are wastes of time (but not always). Deniers and liars are deniers and liars, not skeptics. You are allowed to tell them so.