In his writings Dick Feynman was never a dick (except perhaps in the eyes of those responsible for security during the Manhattan Project), and Dick Dawkins is not usually a dick but sometimes he comes close. I suspect that I am often a dick myself but I enjoy it too much to give it up completely.
What prompts this rather childish (or even dickish?) sounding discussion is the recent furore in the world of evangelical atheism over a presentation at a convention of skeptics where blogger Phil Plait (of ‘Bad Astronomy’) suggested that being “a dick” is not the best argumentative strategy if one actually wants to persuade people.
The negative respondents to Plait’s “Don’t be a Dick” speech take offense which strikes me as exaggerated in at least two ways. Firstly, they seem to think that Plait thinks of “being a dick” as an ongoing characteristic of a person rather than a temporary status arising from particular behaviour (ie they confuse “you are being a dick” with “you are a dick”). Secondly they appear to be exaggerating the seriousness of the accusation because they don’t properly understand the concept of “dickishness” which is really most often thrown as a relatively mild insult more along the lines of implying a bit of pomposity and self delusion than actual malice – though it can certainly carry overtones of meanness as well, especially when it involves puffing up one’s own sense of cleverness by sarcastic belitling of an opponent (and even more so when this is based on a wilful misinterpretation of what that opponent is trying to say). Unfortunately I think Plait encourages this misconception at the start of his talk (and again on his website) by identifying what he is concerned about too closely with aggressiveness when in fact what I think he should really be concerned about it is rather more subtle than that. In general, being a dick is more about being inconsiderate than being aggresive, and in this context it’s really the insensitivity that is the issue.
Why is insensitivity in argument a problem? Because if the object is to change someone’s opinion then it helps to be sensitive as to what might actually work (and to be more concerned with errors in what they really think than picking holes in the details of what they say).
Being a dick is being more concerned with winning arguments than winning minds, and it doesn’t have to be the opponent whose mind is the objective.
Sometimes in a debate with an intransigent opponent some level of mockery or sarcasm can be effective in persuading the audience who are your real targets of persuasion, but if this is overdone (or done by using “straw-man” misstatements of the opposing position) then you risk coming off as “being a dick” and audience members who might have been persuaded may have an emotional reaction against your manner which can cause them to reject a position that they might otherwise have accepted.
A particular form of insensitivity that is relevant here is the failure to recognize that many people don’t like logical arguments. (I suspect that this arises from a feeling of entrapment which seems to come over them whenever a conclusion is shown to be inevitable.) And the negative effect is enhanced when the argument is presented with a clear sense of pride in one’s own cleverness – perhaps because changing focus from content to the affect of the arguer provides an excuse for tuning out the argument itself. So just being right is not enough, and when closing the gate on a trapped inconsistency it is often better to do so quietly and gently rather than with a triumphal slam which may spook the victim’s mind into jumping the fence and undoing all of the work which you had been so proud of.
Of course there are occasions where anger and strong, even nasty, argument is appropriate, and for some, the protection of children from indoctrination may justify mocking uncle Frank’s pious grace and sending grandma crying from the Thanksgiving table. But, although my only evidence for any of this is anecdote and personal experience, I suspect that we have all been dicks at some time or other, and that Plait’s refusal to identify examples is intended to suggest that we look for them in our own behaviour rather than that of others.
Addendum: Ironically, one of the orthodox evangelical atheists objecting to Plait’s plaint, after complaining at length about the lack of specific examples of atheists being dicks, goes on in his very next post to provide one (though admittedly a very minor one – and perhaps only in my sense rather than Plait’s). Jerry Coyne of “Why Evolution is True” responded to neuroscientist Michael Graziano’s speculations as to why many people espouse religions concluding with “If Graziano thinks that religion for everyone is simply is a supportive community and not a set of beliefs about what exists, he needs to get out of the lab more.” The problem with this attempt at humor is that it mocks a position that Graziano did not take – and since Coyne must surely know this, he’s being a bit of a dick.
But apparently he doesn’t like having that pointed out, and resorts to blocking commenters who do so.
And this brings me to what is perhaps a valid criticism of Plaint’s plaint – namely that the choice of even a mild epithet to label the practices he wants to discourage really is asking for the kind of misinterpretation I identified at the outset and can lead from what may be said in a spirit of good humour to a pattern of escalating insults in place of a real conversation.
1: I have no complaints about Feynman’s behaviour either, but the folks at NASA and Morton Thiokol who were blindsided by his demo of a possible shuttle failure mode at a press conference might feel differently about that.
A 1992 communications study by a leading researcher in the field of aggression and communication — Dominic Infante — looked into situations where argumentativeness and verbal aggression occurred together, and found that the more aggressive the speaker, the less credible they were deemed to be and less able to appear to present a valid argument. Other studies have found that third party observers of arguments perceive greater levels of aggression and less credibility of parties who engage in even ‘light’ aggressive tactics. Another study investigating argument progression within paired speakers found verbal aggression was inversely associated with the proportion of arguments. Far from being conducive to discussions on controversial issues, aggressive language reduces desire for verbal interaction and impedes the depth of what is being discussed.
(with references provided at McRae’s site)