Skepticism

Civility & Skepticism

How important is it to be civil in your interactions with believers and proponents of pseudoscience? Here at Skepchick, we often use humor, sarcasm and snark to get our point across. But in doing so, are we alienating people or growing our audience by forming our messages in an interesting, funny way?

That’s the topic of the conversation I had with Blake Smith and Daniel Loxton a couple of weeks ago. Daniel and Blake started this conversation over Twitter with me and kindly agreed to join me in the Skepchick lounge to talk about it more depth.

Listen through your browser by clicking here: Daniel Loxton and Blake Smith Podcast

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Masala Skeptic

Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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26 Comments

  1. Unfortuately I can’t listen to the podcast at the moment – I can’t get at MP3’s through my current firewall.

    For the meantime, the only correct answer as I see it is:

    It depends what you mean by ‘civil’.

    1) IF civility means speaking (or writing) in a tone of voice (and language) that is devoid of abusiveness;
    2) AND it is the speaker’s intention to persuade and engage an audience;
    3) THEN in the general case I would say that speaking civilly is very important;
    4) BECAUSE I cannot think of a context where ‘civility’ in this sense would be anything other than persuasive and engaging to an audience.

    The important thing to notice is that it is possible to tear an argument into little tiny pieces, and speak with civility all the while. I’ve found this to be highly effective.

    That said, if either of the criteria above are relaxed, then my answer may change.

    In particular, I don’t think that my definition of ‘civility’ would hold in most contexts; I’ve found that many people who ask me to be more civil define the term as ‘don’t be critical of my arguments’.

    I hope it goes without saying that being critical of arguments is one of the major things that skepticism is all about. If that is to be our definition of ‘civility’, then I would go so far as to say we have a duty to be as incivil as possible!

  2. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with humour, perhaps even a little bit of sarcasm, but if you try to paint your opponent as stupid or corrupt, it’s just being rude. Anyone can get cheap laughs by bring snarky. Creationists and social conservatives do it all the time.

    The tendency, from what I’ve seen anyway, is not for skeptics to alienate their audiences by being interesting and fun, it’s for them to alienate their audiences by gloating about their own considerable knowledge and expertise, and laughing at the expense of anyone who questions what they say, even if they’re only asking questions out of curiosity. The same could be said of any social group, but if skeptics want to be seen as calm and rational, they should be able to get an idea across without being rude.

    I’m not saying that critical thinking shouldn’t take place. However, it’s important to pick your battles, and to be polite. It can even be as simple as rewording a sentence, ie: rather than saying “You’re wrong,” say “I seem to remember reading that x is true, not y.”

    I think a lot of it is just about impatience. Science is a continuous process on both the personal and the societal level, and no one is completely infallible, so it’s important to be patient when people are wrong about things.

    Wow, sorry about the novel there. It’s just that I feel very strongly about civility. In a perfect world, only logic and facts would matter in discussions, but people are more complicated than that, and it’s easier to get them to agree with you when you’re polite to them.

  3. I am also very non-confrontational and always strive to be civil in conversations IRL and on the intertubes. But…excuse me? What kind of battle are we fighting here? Look at the What’s the Harm page, and then tell me why I should engage in a conversation on whether the term “woo” is pejorative or not.

    As a skeptic and an atheist I have been called unfeeling, cold, distant – and my argument is dismissed because it is so unemotional. I hear, “Well, I felt something that you obviously are incapable of feeling.” But let a little honest emotion come through occasionally and then I’ve REALLY lost the argument because I’m “uncivil”.

    My viewpoint is, let the response fit the situation. Try to let the facts do your speaking for you. But it shouldn’t be that you can’t let people know how you feel at the same time you’re letting them know what you think.

  4. I find snark in personal conversations (online or IRL) tiresome…sarcasm is just so overused and nasty that I tend to turn off. If someone is making snarky comments, I tend to feel that they are far more interested in showing themselves to be clever than about actually getting any points across.

    I don’t think there is any reason you can’t be funny and interesting without being sarcastic. Sarcasm tends to send the meta-message “You’re an idiot, and I’m not”.

  5. I find snark in personal conversations (online or IRL) tiresome…sarcasm is just so overused and nasty that I tend to turn off. If someone is making snarky comments, I tend to feel that they are far more interested in showing themselves to be clever than about actually getting any points across. Smug sucks.

    I don’t think there is any reason you can’t be funny and interesting without being sarcastic. Sarcasm tends to send the meta-message “You’re an idiot, and I’m not”….laughing with someone as you expose the fallacies in some belief. Explore things together, don’t preach.

    I really really really like this episode of Skeptoid:

    http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4160

    which shows a deep knowledge of human nature and and a great sensitivity to the feelings of others. If you are not sympathetic to their feelings, you will quickly put them on the defensive, and convince them of nothing.

  6. I agree, in part, with Juryjone’s “My viewpoint is, let the response fit the situation.”

    Ask what is THEIR agenda? Then ask what is yours.

    A 75 yr old patient of mine came in today, still very much in mourning over the unexpected loss of her son to a massive heart attack. She said she found solace in one book that she was reading. It was by Sylvia Brown. Internally I cringed. She asked me what were my thoughts on the supernatural. I paused … caught myself … and addressed HER needs by saying , ” I know we don’t know everything.” I did not say aloud the second sentence in my mind, ” but that doesn’t mean it’s unknowable.” I let her speak. This was her time. She needed me to listen, not to educate or debate.

    The day previously though another patient was hesitant about vaccinations and started to discuss some anti vaxers propoganda. This was INDEED a time to debate and educate. Still, it must be done in a non judgemental manner.

    Too often a skeptic judges and expresses that judgement in a condescending manner. That’s no way to influence people and win friends. It’s certainly no way to take advantage of a teaching moment.

  7. I appreciate some snark, but I think it’s best used within the skeptical community and not when there’s a real chance to communicate with someone outside of it.

    I recently encountered this question when I learned through a comment on my blog that a friend I’ve been out of touch with for a while is more religious than I knew. She made a remark about being fearful, as the mother of two sons, of statistics citing how many teenagers raised in the church become nonbelievers.

    This is tricky territory. I am not a parent and even if I were, I don’t feel I have the right to tell other parents what to do about their kids’ religious upbringing. That’s just an area I don’t get into. (That said, none of my close friends are into really harmful religious practices; I don’t know all the details about this woman’s religious beliefs.)

    But I felt I couldn’t let the remark about atheists go, any more than if she had shared a fear that her sons might have to take college classes with Jews. I let her know that I thought she was making a mistake to equate “values” with “God,” and that I didn’t believe her sons would simply drop the values she had taught them if they left the church.

    Maybe I should have gone further and pointed out that she and I have been friends and shared mutual respect, and I am an atheist. But one thing I do know is in that moment to get snarky and sarcastic about her feelings would most likely have closed the door on that line of communication.

    That said, there is a certain type of bull-headed pseudoscientific idiot whom you’re never going to convince no matter what, so might as well pull out the Sarcasmo-Ray guns.

  8. I don’t use sarcasm or wit in everyday situations nearly as much as I do online (mostly because timing is too important, and the funny remarks usually come to me after the window of opportunity to use them has already closed).

    Not to mention the wit I use online isn’t always (usually?) of the highest quality either. Let’s just say lots of jokes get stricken from the act …

    But civility is another matter. While I may be forming an argument while really angry or upset, by the time I’ve reread it for the umpteenth time and am ready to submit, my rage has often cooled down a bit, and the resulting response is much calmer and civil than it started out.

    Very often, this means that IRL I’ll just bite my tongue rather than risk stepping on some toes. Unless I know for sure that whoever I’m talking to can take some criticism and/or verbal abuse.

    This has lead to rather odd situations where I’m very vocal on Facebook, but when I meet people again IRL I’m much more quiet.

  9. Civility disarms every time.

    A lot of the woo-believers are *looking* for a fight, and those types will not be swayed by logical reasoning. If you give in and argue with them, well, then, you’re giving them what they want – the concept that their beliefs are worthy of a heated argument with a scientist.

    I admit in my youth I used to get snarky and sarcastic, but I mellowed and realized what I was doing was ultimately ineffective.

    I volunteer in the “ancient life” hall at a science museum right now (policy dictates I can’t tell you which one, but it is a cool museum dedicated to actual science). While we have a pat (and rather dry) statement we are supposed to give to creationists and ID’ers about how it’s a science museum and as such only embraces current, peer-reviewed scientific thought, I’ve added on to it.

    With a big smile, friendly tone, direct eye contact, and a wave to one of our showier Cretaceous fossils, I point out that no matter what you believe, it is awfully darn cool, isn’t it?

    Works every time – it shows that you’re just not going to fight them in that venue. A couple of other volunteers have started using it as well.

  10. I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but I think sarcasm and ridicule does have a place. You just have to know where that place is.

    For example, in a one-on-0ne conversation, being civil is probably better. But If you’re talking to a fence-sitter or someone completely unaware of the actual positions, highlighting the ridiculous parts of the creationists/antivaxxers/etc arguments can be effective.

    But you have to know what you’re doing, and know your audience.

  11. In the face of everyone lauding civility and not poking fun or talking down to people – definitions that aren’t above argument – there’s a simple fact that needs to be asserted.

    The appropriate response to the ridiculous is ridicule. I think someone needs to speak up for the right to ridicule the ridiculous.

    Quite frankly, nothing is quite so dangerous to those that take utter nonsense seriously as satire and ridicule.

    Although I agree that civility – which I understand to mean ‘don’t be abusive’ – is a good tactic for the purpose of persuasion.

    But this doesn’t mean that we can’t ridicule something in a civil way.

    Also, there is more to the game than just persuasion. Deflation plays a part as well – letting out the wind from the pompous windbags trying to sell sugar pills as ‘cutting edge homeopathic science’ is also important.

    I think it’s important we don’t de-claw ourselves too much. Sure, often its a good idea to retract our claws. But it’s important to know they’re there, and that we can bring them out when they’re needed, and that we do bring them out when appropriate.

    Who does it really benefit if we refuse to use some of our best weapons? Us, or our opponents?

  12. Daniel: You have some good points. I think most of us can agree that, on a one-on-one basis with people, it’s important to have a basic level of respect and avoid being abusive.

    I think your focus was more on skeptical journalism and writing, with which I only have a few disagreements:

    “The appropriate response to the ridiculous is ridicule. I think someone needs to speak up for the right to ridicule the ridiculous.”

    That really depends on what you mean by ridiculous. If by ridiculous, you mean the obviously AND provably false or inconsistent, then you might have a case. But when making fun of something that just “seems silly”, it’s important to be aware of subjective cultural differences when appealing to your audience.

    “Quite frankly, nothing is quite so dangerous to those that take utter nonsense seriously as satire and ridicule. ”

    Satire, when done well, is a great tool for provoking thought. However, the idea should be to place more of the emphasis on ridiculing the ideas and the behaviours they cause, rather than making value judgements about the people themselves. As fiction writers say, “show, don’t tell”.

    “Who does it really benefit if we refuse to use some of our best weapons? Us, or our opponents?”

    When we give in to mob mentality and succumb to the same fallacies and arguments from emotion that we decry, no one benefits. But when people on ALL sides of the argument are able to keep themselves from acting rudely or getting emotionally attached to ideas, everyone benefits. Admittedly, that doesn’t happen very often.

  13. @BenjaminB

    Thanks for the thoughtful response, Ben!

    But when making fun of something that just “seems silly”, it’s important to be aware of subjective cultural differences when appealing to your audience.

    Of course! Thanks for adding nuance for me, and giving me another talking point. ^_^

    There is of course a difference between a genuine cultural difference and the genuinely ridiculous. Take fish sauce, for example. If I’d had the processing process for fish sauce described to me before I’d tasted it, I probably never would have done so – at least, not knowingly. But I wouldn’t go so far as to call that process ridiculous.

    Satire, when done well, is a great tool for provoking thought. However, the idea should be to place more of the emphasis on ridiculing the ideas and the behaviours they cause, rather than making value judgements about the people themselves. As fiction writers say, “show, don’t tell”.

    Well, yes. Ideas are ridiculous, not people. I should have mentioned that at the outset, methinks.

    I would also like to comment that it’s not just satire. Don’t underestimate the power of flat-out being laughed at. I’m not saying it’s always appropriate – in fact, I’d agree that most of the time it’s not. But it is an option that needs to stay on the table, even if we shy away from using it most of the time due to tactical considerations.

    When we give in to mob mentality and succumb to the same fallacies and arguments from emotion that we decry, no one benefits. But when people on ALL sides of the argument are able to keep themselves from acting rudely or getting emotionally attached to ideas, everyone benefits. Admittedly, that doesn’t happen very often.

    Hmm… What gave you the impression I was advocating mob mentality or fallacious argument?

    No. Some things are just so damn silly that treating them seriously just grants the illusion of credibility.

    My favorite example is the video floating around the internet of James Randi explaining and ridiculing homeopathy. I’ve found it to be a very useful tool for explaining to people exactly how ridiculous homeopathy really is. (Apologies: I can’t access YouTube right now to find it for you – stupid firewall – but you can Google ‘James Randi Video Homeopathy’ and you should get a few hits.)

    My attempts to civilly explain that homeopathy cannot produce better results than placebo usually wind up getting a response like: “Yes, but they do get results, don’t they? We don’t know everything!” Then I show the video, and the person I’m talking to suddenly gets it.

    I think its important to maintain a healthy disrespect for ideas. Respect the person, sure. But our stance towards ideas should always be one of insolence – especially the ideas we like.

    To me, the call for civility in discussion is a tactical one, in the service of persuasion. But civility is just one tool in the box. Ridicule is another, and it has its place too.

    And I just want to repeat myself that we don’t have to be 100% persuasive all of the time.

  14. @ Daniel: First of all, thanks for your reply. Just very quickly, I didn’t actually think you were advocating mob mentality or fallacies, and in retrospect, I should have phrased it better. What I meant was that, when people are rude or snarky (as I may have been when I referred to “mob mentality”) we tend to develop an emotional attachment to their ideas, which can make the best of us prone to using fallacies, however subtle, to justify our positions. And the best of us sometimes temporarily adjust our opinions to fit in with those around us.

    It is true that some ideas are too ridiculous to be taken seriously, but I think the reason people continue to practice them sometimes has less to do with whether they think the ideas are accurate, and more to do with how they associate being wrong with a sense of shame. That’s the main reason I don’t like attacking people (at least not on an individual level) for being wrong, because it reinforces the idea that it’s shameful to admit you’ve made a mistake and to correct yourself.

    By the way, I watched the James Randi video, and I liked it, because he’s using positively verifiable facts to determine the truth, rather than just saying bad things about the people he’s criticizing. And, as you were getting at, the information is presented in a simple way that makes it easy to “get it.”

    I’ll shut up now, just because I don’t want to start hogging the discussion.

  15. @BenjaminB:

    I’ll shut up now, just because I don’t want to start hogging the discussion.

    Ha! That’s what the internet’s for!

    Good discussion, tho. And also a very good point about the stigma associated with being wrong – I always, always, always forget about that one.

    If I’m shown to have an incorrect opinion, I only remain incorrect until I change that opinion. So I have zero hesitation when announcing I’ve been incorrect about something. I always forget that this isn’t so easy for everyone.

    Good reminder.

  16. Before I started the Fledgeling Skeptic blog on WordPress.com I was more confrontational than I am now. Being relatively new to the skeptic scene it’s sometimes hard for me NOT to go from zero to bitch in 2.5 seconds. There are times when I still get so incensed over what I consider raging stupidity that I’ll stoop to name calling. Fortunately, never to the person’s face.

    Since I’ve been blogging I find that civility gets you MUCH further than snark. When you can calmly explain the “why” of something, it gets better results.

    Something I’m currently dealing with is the belief that many skeptics seem to have that you must be a non-theist in order to be a skeptic. It’s difficult for me to be polite when I feel like even my own people just don’t seem to get that people have to come to their own conclusions. If you can introduce someone who is a believer to skepticism, eventually they may examine their own beliefs.

    In my blog I talk a great deal about self examination as a way of teaching ones self to be a skeptic. Self-examination is, to my mind, a major step towards being a good critical thinker. It just galls me to no end that our own people are shooting down fledgeling skeptics who still have a belief in some form of divinity.

    So…yeah. Civility good. Snarky bad.

  17. I think the movement (to the extent that we are a movement) needs both, you need the firebreathers like Penn and Teller to attract attention and the kinder, gentler sceptics like Steve Novella to show that we aren’t just scoffing at those we disagree with. Sarcasm and satire are powerful weapons and can be very effective when properly used.

  18. I think we should also be clear about who we’re talking to…if it’s the snake-oil salesman who should know better or seems to know better but just do it for the bucks, fire away!

    If it’s the person who’s been taken in, we should be gentle. And when I do show my anger, I make sure it’s obvious that it’s directed to the source of the crap rather than the unknowing believer. (“it really pisses me off that these bastards get away with lying about their claims”).

  19. With religious people, I’m civil… However I treat creationists with as much respect as a believer of geocentrism.

    They might as well believe that the earth is at the center of the galaxy if they don’t believe in evolution. Creationists aren’t often very civil since they are usually believing in scientific conspiracies, or they are just ignorant/idiots, so… there’s only a short time that I can be patient with them.

    People have to earn respect and civility. Telling me that I”m an idiot because I think nothing exploded and created everything and that I’m just a religious sheep following the immoral tenants of atheism… isn’t going to get them much respect.

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