James Randi speaks about Carl Sagan

September 28, 2010 § 5 Comments

James Randi’s talk about Carl Sagan’s influence is an eloquent and stirring call-to-arms for reason,  rationality and knowledge. It’s great to see one great thinker speak of another great speaker. In it he says:

“Our greatest enemy by far is ignorance. We have the weapons to defeat it, and we a re increasingly able to do so.”


“Don’t be a dick”? Sometimes we need to…

July 10, 2010 § 17 Comments

I have no idea what Bad Astronomer Phil Plait said at TAM 8 today, I was not there, in fact I am on the other side of the world right now. But the news I got is that Phil was trying to put forward the position that being overtly aggressive when addressing any kind of wrongly held belief is not the way to go, that you don’t catch flies with vinegar, you catch them with honey. Some people apparently took this as a criticism of Pharyngula’s PZ Myers, and the twittersphere was filled with tweets about his talk. I can’t comment on the talk itself, but I know that PZ likes to be overtly assertive in his standpoint and is not one to avoid a topic for the sake of being polite. I’m sure also that there was more to Phil’s talk than just puppies and hugs.

But it does bring forward an interesting problem. What voice should we use?

As overtly critical thinkers, is it better to be aggressive toward people who hold ignorant or skewed views about the world, society and the universe, or is it better to adopt a “soft touch” approach?

Personally I tend to go for the latter, and for this reason. I think it is very important to see where the other side is coming from in debates about religion, society or science. In my experience in dealing with people if you go at someone hammer and tongs from the beginning they stop hearing what you are saying, they get defensive. It’s ineffective, and they tend to resent you for attacking them. If you approach them by listening and understanding, people will tend to listen to you in return. A civilised conversation does not involve a knife-fight.

Having said this, there is a time and a place for ridicule. Some people only respond when they have their faith in irrationality shattered. And some people need to be publicly humiliated before their peers before they can see just how ridiculous their viewpoints may actually be. But keep in mind, this will not change the mind of the individual being ridiculed. What it can do is change the minds of those who listen to the irrational person, people seeing both sides of the debate can evaluate both sides of an argument and come to a conclusion for themselves.

For me the biggest problem is that people who hold certain irrational beliefs will go into a state of denial about their situation or beliefs. As I said in an earlier blog “Pitfalls in debate – the difficulties we face” in relation to dealing with loved-ones’ irrationalities:

  • People’s core beliefs are very precious to them, because this is what they base their assessments of their universe upon. If you stomp on these, you stomp on all they hold dear.
  • When discussing topics of belief, people with strong views which you are addressing or opposing can tend to “clam-up” and stop listening to you. The more insistent you become, the less they hear.
  • Aggressive attacks only cause the other person to feel threatened. If you get too emotional about a topic or during debate, you lose, the other person will claim victory based on your lack of self-control.

This applies to all people, not just your grandmother. Because so many base their understanding of the universe on what they were brought up to believe, by smashing these beliefs you are threatening to destabilise the very foundations of what they consider to be themselves, their core being. As ridiculous as this may sound, it’s true, and to try to smash someone else’s beliefs with heavy-handed insults will only make people feel belittled or “not heard”. People hate to feel their views are not heard or are dismissed.

There is a place for both the heavy-handed approach and the softer approach, and I think it comes down to the situation, who you’re talking to, what it is that they are saying, how much influence this may have on others, whether it’s a public forum or a private conversation. Likewise there is room for both Phil Plait’s approach to debating, and that of PZ Myers.

There are two key factors in debate that DO matter; the facts that we bring and the language that we use. If our facts are sound, and the language we use is persuasive, we may not win over the nay-sayers we are debating, but we may just win ourselves some converts in the audience at large. But again even if we have the facts and the persuasive language for our arguments, the noise coming from opponents may be so loud as to require aggression and ridicule.

One thing that is important to note is the reason why Phil, PZ, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, myself and many, many others are debating irrationality, religion, bad science, bad medicine, dogma and ignorance. We all come forward with a certain understanding that these irrationalities cause more harm in this world than people give credit for. As I’ve said before, we are on a teetering point on this planet, where if we continue to make one bad decision after another about the way we evaluate what is important, the way we treat one-another, and the things we hold as true, then we are surely doomed to much further hardships. We have the information to make a real difference. We have to be effective and we have to be unwavering in our resolve. And we need to use all the tools at our disposal to do this.

I don’t think it matters whether we as individuals employ the same style or fervor in our debates. I think it comes down the the commitment we feel, the information we have and the way we phrase our facts. I don’t think we need to pander to the ridiculous claims of the delusional, but at the same time, with just the right measure of respect and the right amount of ridicule when needed, I do think progress can be made. The right tool for the right job. You wouldn’t use a sledgehammer to butter your toast would you?

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