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Reader Rants: Don’t attack people – Tristan Zimmerman, EvoEdu

In last week’s rant, Skept-artist Brian George talked about being a dick to a woman at a party. This week, Tristan Zimmerman of EvoEdu gives you some tips on how not to be a dick and why you might want to avoid being one.

Yes, this was planned when I posted Brian’s rant. Yes, it was lazy. No, I don’t feel bad. No, I didn’t delete your rant if you submitted one to me this week. Yes, I still love you. No, I didn’t check on when the insurance autopayment is supposed to hit the account. (That last one was for my husband in case he’s reading.)

Anyway, I don’t really have much to lead into this with because I’ve never been an asshole to anyone in my life… ever. So I don’t know what it’s like. But I know you act like one all the time, so please read on:

Don’t Attack People

Tristan Zimmerman

There are very few new pseudosciences out there. UFOs go back 60 years, homeopathy two hundred, and God only knows how old astrology is. Practitioners have been using the same tired arguments all this time, and we’ve been boring ourselves listening to them. Because of this, it’s easy to forget those we talk to are flesh-and-blood people, not collections of the same old faulty ideas and misconceptions. We can slip into a pattern. We simply attack ideas and strip bare what we see as stupidity without realizing that we are attacking the person, too.

You have to remember that people you talk to often have good reasons for believing what they do. While many just saw it on TV and won’t really mind being corrected, a good number are deeply invested in a pseudoscience for highly personal reasons. Attacking these people’s opinions is an attack upon the person himself. Consider that an attack on the idea is an attack on the motivations. An attack on the motivations is an attack on the person. It sounds ludicrous, but it’s true. Consider these two examples.

To many who advocate creationism, it’s only one facet of a broad and deep faith in Christ. To some extent, they filter everything in life through this faith. Attacking creationism is attacking their faith, which may be at the core of their self-identity. In this case, an attack on creationism (different from a discussion of the merits of evolution) is an attack on the person.

A man committed to homeopathic treatments likely thinks he has very good evidence for homeopathy. Attacking his beliefs as worthless anecdotal evidence and confirmation bias (different from explaining why anecdotal evidence has little merit and how confirmation bias works) will make him think along the following lines: “If what he says is true, I’m an idiot for using this stuff. But I know I’m no idiot, so he must be wrong.” It’s not logical, but forget logic. It makes sense for a human to respond negatively to what they see as a personal attack.

Your goal then, must be to to expose people to new ideas. Don’t simply tear down their ideas – that’s just not going to work. Support the scientific alternatives, and then, with respect and empathy, explain why the support for their idea does not hold up. Do not attack the support. Certainly do not attack the idea itself. For example:

Terrible: “Homeopathy is a ridiculous idea thought of in an era where medicine was just as likely to kill you as make you stronger and based on the truly inane concepts that whatever sickened you can cure you and that diluting a chemical makes its effect more powerful.”

Bad: “Homeopathy’s support comes from people tricked by the placebo effect, terribly-designed studies, and a childish fear of big corporations.”

Good: “Anecdotal evidence is unreliable for [these reasons]. The scientific studies that support homeopathy are flawed because of [these reasons]. Most homeopathic remedies are manufactured by the same parent companies that advocates of CAM are trying to avoid. When you consider that the large, well-designed studies do not support homeopathy, there’s not much good evidence supporting the idea it works. I can completely understand why you want it to be true – I’ve gotten obscene medical bills too. But it’s just not true.”

Beyond exposing people to new ideas, there’s not much you can do. They have to come to their own conclusions. Attacking their ideas will not get you any further, and will, in fact, drive them deeper into their convictions. You must not forget that folks will often see a personal attack in a volley on their cherished beliefs. Whether you think this is childish, ridiculous, or perfectly understandable changes nothing. Forgetting that these ideas you’re arguing against have actual flesh-and-blood people behind them will lead you to simply attack the idea, and that will accomplish nothing at all.

Tristan Zimmerman is the author and webmaster of – evolution education for the layman. As part of this year’s Skeptic Track at GenCon Indy, Tristan will be giving a talk entitled, “Evolution, Creationism, and Gaming.”

The Skepchick Reader Rants, posted every Wednesday at 3PM Eastern, is a feature where you, the Skepchick readers, get to tell the Skepchick community what you think about whatever you want!  To be considered, please submit an original rant, preferably unpublished anywhere else, to skepchick(at)skepchick(dot)org with the subject: My Rant.


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. A well thought out ‘rant’ (albeit remarkably unranty). My own wife has done quite a lot to culture me in those respects. I’m thankful to her for that.

  2. I try to do this to the best of my ability. Sometimes I can go through painstakingly nice measures to get my point across but not offend anybody. It’s so much more difficult than ranting about their faulty logic but I agree that it can be way more effective.

    HOWEVER, sometimes you can be as nice and understanding as ever and people will view it as a personal attack. I have encountered numerous people (friends, family, strangers) that think I am attacking them just because I am disagreeing with them.

  3. People you talk to often have good reasons for believing what they do.

    I disagree. They often have very powerful reasons for believing what they do, but powerful and good are often very different things. Your own personal biases and dogmas can shape what you believe so irrevocably that no amount of evidence can ever change your mind, and this is a very powerful force, but it’s in no way good. It’s neither desirable nor functional. I agree with you that attacking individual ideas misses the point, but that’s because the problem isn’t one or two personal beliefs that happen to make someone believe creationism or homeopathy; it’s the much more abstract belief that personal conviction can override overwhelming external evidence, and it’s probably done more damage than any other idea in history. It seems to me that your approach misses the point just as much as any raving debater’s. You shouldn’t be trying to to convince people that a single belief they hold is untrue—you should give them the tools to pick that belief apart, and hopefully make sure they’ll never get taken in by a sham again.

  4. What is so frustrating is that, as you suggest, I try to be sensitive to and not personally attack those with different belief systems, I find myself on the receiving end of evangelists and new agers who have no qualms about pushing their beliefs on me!

  5. Hey Tristan, nice rant!

    Not attacking is a great first step. To communicate effectively, you first have to become a person worth listening to.


  6. Oh, good! Another concern troll! We haven’t had any of THOSE in a while.

    EXCEPT FOR ALWAYS, because apparently that’s all anybody wants to talk about any more.

  7. Different people are swayed by different methods and sometimes context is everything. You can argue stridently and forcefully without insulting your audience if you find the right arguments. I think ‘tone’ is often not the problem as much as not understanding what the other person considers convincing. Most people don’t understand the placebo affect well enough to find it to be a compelling argument, thus they find it insulting regardless of the tone in which it is presented. I think the key is to hammer on the people promoting the nonsense, not the people who are taken in by it.

  8. @Joshua: I have to agree with Joshua. Nowadays it seems too many skeptics are tiptoeing around walking on eggshells and more of those proverbs that suggest the most careful and well thought out approach so as not to offend anybody. And it appears to be having absolutely no effect at all.

    Meanwhile the opposition is just barging through crushing eggshells as if they didn’t even care, and they appear to only be gaining support. Of course, they have the luxury of being able to use lies to sway people, while all we have is the truth.

    While I will choose my words carefully in face-to-face conversation, and will be more hesitant to attack someone’s beliefs right off the bat, I have no such reservations on the internet. If you don’t like being ridiculed for your beliefs, then perhaps you shouldn’t believe ridiculous nonsense.

    As I’ve recently heard from quite a number of former anti-vaxxers, the shock value of having someone angrily attacking their stance (albeit coupled with facts to explain why it’s wrong) was what it took to get them to listen.

    Walking on eggshells isn’t going to sway those already entrenched in their beliefs, but brute force might get the fence-sitters to take notice.
    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. The more you ridicule a crazy idea, the less likely people who’ve never been exposed to it are to believe it when the lies and the misunderstandings finally reach them.

    But still, all the while facts and the truth are the most important weapon we have in either approach

  9. I think the real issue here is that there are different approaches for different contexts, and “contexts” is a wide category: different venues, different people, different situations, different goals, different values, etc. and so forth.

    If one person feels like they should be less offensive in some or all contexts, that’s their prerogative, and I’m not going to tell them to be more bombastic and forceful. I’d like the same courtesy from them when I feel like being more outspoken and opinionated. There is no single effective approach, but that’s even a step to far, because there is no single goal, and to speak of “effective approaches” assumes that everyone is working toward the same end, which simply is not true.

  10. What exactly was nasty in what I said?

    What is really funny is talking about being nice on a blog that has a video calling the Pope a mother fucker over and over again .

    I for one think the video was hilarious and agree with it 100%.

    I am sick of people telling other people how to act and how to deal with skeptical issues.

    Do what you want and let others do the same.

    The tone thing is getting old.

  11. @spurge:

    Well you called me a hypocrite for not delving into attacks on another person in another thread.

    Maybe I’m just naive in the ways of the world, but I think there’s a different standard for how we treat our friends and co workers who use homeopathy for ear infections or believe that ghosts haunt their toasters vs how we should treat a man who spent years of his life using his authority to cover up the fact that his colleagues were raping children and justifying that by saying that PR needs to be considered.

    Anyway, like I said, if you don’t like the rants I’m posting, submit ones you’d like to see posted.

  12. I did not mean to be nasty and I apologize if I came off that way. We all have our buttons and I should try and be nicer when mine are pushed.

    I do not like nor am I good at writing essays but you have a point about submitting different rants.

    Posting here about this particular rant seemed like my best option.

    There are certainly majorly different degrees of harm done but I am quite sure people will find the video offensive and others will complain that it hurts the cause.

    We need all kinds of responses and I certainly don’t find it helpful when people keep telling others how to deal with any particular situation.

  13. @spurge:

    I think it’s a matter of balance. Being polite and demure in a public forum isn’t going to gain you any enemies, but it’s not going to attract attention.

    But when you’re dealing with someone face to face, being a smug asshole isn’t going to get you anything but punched in the dick.

    But then it also depends on the other face in the face to face. If it really is the Pope or Jenny McCarthy, I think it’s okay to shoot to kill. If it’s just someone who is honestly misguided into thinking that vaccines are bad, having a calm discussion with them could save someone’s life.

    And I don’t think that, “but they’re jerks and they started it” is really a good reason to be a jerk back. It wasn’t a good excuse when you were 7, and it’s not a good excuse now.

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