Guest BloggersSkepticism

Reader Rants: Skept-Artist on being a dick

This week’s Reader Rant comes from Skept-artist Brian George.

My new project is offline grassroots skeptical outreach. In my endeavor to save the world with skepticism, I have to remember that sometimes it’s important to not be a huge asshole when talking to people. We’ve all done it. Sometimes not intentionally, but anyone who’s been a skeptic for more than a few weeks is likely to have offended someone with a flippant remark about a “stupid” belief or an outright dismissal.

I actually do this far more than I’d like to admit… and I know others who do it far more than I do. And if you’ve paid any attention to reader comments around here lately, you’ve probably caught on the Skept-artist is a pretty nice guy. If he can fall into the being-a-dick-trap, anyone can.

While an anecdote may not be evidence, it can still serve as a valuable lesson.

Was it Something I Said?

Brian George

Do you guys remember the time when we were at that party and there was a woman talking about how she had a friend, who knew a guy, who had an alien implant removed from his body? And I started sputtering and was like, “Uh, yeah. Seriously? That can’t be true. Who was this? Someone you know? Uh, right, huh.”

* Spittle flying from my mouth *

And then the woman got up and walked away?
No? You don’t remember that?
Unfortunately, I do.
Now I could blame my behavior on the fact that I had quit smoking recently and was all testy because of it. I could say that I was hungry and therefore cranky. I could just tell you that I was most probably right, so who cares? Or I could just own up and tell you that I was a newly molded Skeptic and therefore I had to let everyone know in the most annoying and aggressive ways possible.

Before I had ever considered myself a Skeptic, I already loved arguing with people. Not necessarily in an aggressive way, but I liked to have honest discussions because it really helped me learn. However, when I discovered skepticism and the skeptical movement a few years ago, my style of argument became what I can only describe as “Rabidly Overzealous” (Redundant, but accurate).

Happily, this phase didn’t last for too long, because I recognized that I was being a huge jerk. Having accurate and interesting information to share with people is one thing. Shouting that information at people with a smug, misplaced sense of satisfaction? Yeah, that’s a horse of a different color. That’s not the kind of person I was before, so there was no reason why that should have changed.

So I’ve tried to dial back the casual over-arguer in me.

I’m much happier now just sharing a bit of information if someone wants it, without feeling like I have to stick it in their craw. Does my blood still squirt out of my ears when I hear a bunch of garbage. Oh sure. Can I fly off the handle if the situation calls for it? Yep. But in daily conversation, with someone who might even come to understand a point I have, and change their mind, why shouldn’t I try my best to be, at least, polite?

I should mention that I did end up apologizing to that woman at the party. I felt really bad. Because even if I thought I was being skeptical when I was talking to her, I wasn’t really. I just dismissed her, out of hand. I didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t listen to her story. I just told her she was wrong, without even the courtesy of a conversation.

Maybe I could have asked her some questions. Maybe she would have admitted that she thought the claim was far-fetched and she didn’t really buy it. But I’ll never know, because I was fucking rude.

Brian George is a visual artist who lives and works in Brooklyn.  He graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 2000 with a BFA in Illustration.  In 2005 he co-founded the Subject to Change artist collective which aims to interact with the community through the arts. After rediscovering his love of science, he started a blog “The Art of a Carbon-Based Life Form” which focuses on the promotion of science through art.

He will happily make art for you if you would like to pay him.

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. I was very much the same way before I self-identified as a Skeptic (and am certainly still quite capable of–some might even say prone to–dickishness.) I found that as a confident “intellectual” my default position on pseudo-scientific claims was dismissal but now as a confident skeptic it’s engagement. I think that’s a real hallmark of Skepticism, despite the low prior plausibility of many of these claims–and the lack of significant positive evidence–a good Skeptic serves her or his purpose and own interests better by addressing these assertions.

    When in situations like you described I find asking leading questions to be the most effective–let their own intellect do the work for you when possible. It’s easy to become didactic when one is passionate about something; and while I’ve actually learned quite a bit from pedantic conversation between friends it’s not effective when arguing against a specific claim with the claimant in question.

    These are, of course, things we already know. I just thought I’d add my anecdotal experience to the growing body of non-evidence.

  2. Good story Brian! I apparently have a way of saying “really” while raising my eyebrows that my wife says clearly communicates I think you are a stupid knuckle dragging idiot. Not always a good thing at parties apparently.

  3. Oh, I remember that party haha. The thing that also added to the awkwardness was that the apartment where the festivities took place was TINY. And by tiny, I mean SMALL. So after pissing the lady off a bit, there was no good way to just avoid her ha ha.

    When she mentioned the alien thing, she was sitting next to me and I slowly turned to Skept-artist. I think I saw his nose bleed a bit and he wasn’t insanely rude, but it was a party and one of those moments where it was probably best to change the subject to, I don’t know, “WOW, is this apartment small or what?! I mean, it’s tiny in here, huh? I bet if I wanted to, there would be no way to avoid conversations I don’t want to have. Swell party dudes.”

    And he felt bad folks. He apologized almost immediately. A sweet lad he is.

  4. @James Fox: I actually seem to remember the lady having some tattoos of fairytale creatures…I mean, I have tattoos so I’m not going to judge too much, but mine say things like “Jump Ship” and “So it Goes”, not “Wicca is for Lovers”.

  5. This really is a fabulous rant.

    And I can so relate. Someone once told me that the best skeptic never left anyone feeling dumber, but instead left people feeling smarter. Something I aspire to but can’t seem to get the hang of.

  6. @JillianSwift: that’s a fabulous sentiment. I never want to think that people are idiots, but sometime I can’t help myself. I remember flying with a pilot a few years back, and he wanted to know the difference between a Dolly Varden and a bull trout (2 species of char that are commonly confused up here). I launched into an explanation about how it was mostly genetic, and Dollies are usually found closed to the coast while bull trout are usually inland, but they’re in the same family, and they’re related to all other salmonids, and if you go back far enough, everything’s related anyway… and he stopped me at that point and said, “You really believe that???” and I was like, “You don’t???”

    So he ended up launching into pseudoscientific arguments about solar flares (??) and why the earth couldn’t be more than 4000 years old.. etc.. etc.. I couldn’t help myself. I rolled my eyes. A lot. And now every time I see him, I kind of look at him like he’s got 3 heads. I hope he doesn’t notice..

  7. @here_fishy:

    My problem is not that I think people are idiots (unless they’re creationists), but that I think everyone will be so happy to know what I know.

    “You’re trying acupuncture? Oh, did you know that in all the studies that have been done, the only ones that use good methodology showed that acupuncture works exactly as well as poking people in random places with toothpicks and letting them think they are getting acupuncture? What? Why is everybody staring at me like that?”

  8. @MarianLibrarian: That’s the sort of thing I sometimes do deliberately, for almost exactly the same reason @Skept-artist states. Kind of, “Oh, you’re doing this stupid thing because you’re ignorant. Here, let me fix that for you. OK, go have fun doing your stupid thing with full knowledge now!”

    I also find I’m more harsh, blunt and abrupt with friends and family than I am with strangers. I think it’s because I expect better of them, and because I care about them they’re worth some emotional investment on my part. I tend to be more polite with strangers, but also more dismissive, because I really don’t care enough to get directly involved. “Oh, you’re stupid. Duly noted. Hey, I want some ice cream.”

  9. I, unfortunately, just pissed off some people on Facebook. I said people who believe homeopathy works were idiots. I got some angry comments, but mostly, “I know some of it works for some people” comments. I believe, however, that many of these people lump all “natural” remedies together and don’t realize what, exactly, homeopathy is. When I (repeatedly) explained that I was specifically referring to “water that used to have stuff in it cures disease” they stopped talking, but only one person said, “Well, if it’s just water of course it won’t work!” to which I facepalmed. Seriously? You are convinced homeopathy works, but you have no idea what it is?

    So, yeah, while I try to be nice, particularly in regards to religion and stuff, I do tend to stand pretty steadfast to some ideas. I just need to not open things up with inflammatory statements.

    I’ve been good about one thing, though! My derby league (as most do, apparently), LURVS the chiropractor. Other than giving out information on chiropractic stroke and urging the girls to avoid neck adjustments, I bite my tongue. If somebody started a conversation about it, I would probably say more, but I’d prefer not to piss of 40 badass women, woo or not. I might’ve even considered trying it once (since it’s free) if our particular chiro wasn’t all about infants need adjusting RIGHT OUT OF THE WOMB, YO! Gods, I’m going to have a hole in my tongue soon.

  10. @“Other” Amanda:

    I said people who believe homeopathy works were idiots.

    The thing is that they’re not idiots, its just that they don’t know much about it and haven’t really thought about it. Ignorance and unthinkingness aren’t idiocy, after all most people don’t know much about most things and don’t really think about most things.

    Now I will agree that people who understand homoeopathy and believe it works are idiots.

  11. @James K: I do think that people who spew b.s. about shit they clearly have no idea about are dangerously close to being idiots. It’d be one thing if they said, “Well, I just don’t know. I don’t know enough about it.” But most of these people talk about it like they KNOW, even when they have no idea. Or, they just refuse to actually look at evidence. Ignorance isn’t an excuse, after all.

  12. @MarianLibrarian: People stateside definitely do conflate the two. Like many misconceptions in America I think it has a bit to do with consumerism. Many of the “health” stores in the US have signs hung in their windows with “Homeopathy” written on them. Also, if one were feeling masochistic enough to peruse the aisles of these purveyors of pablum one would find many labels of pills and supplements with the word on them as well.

  13. When I first got to the JREF site, I hadn’t heard much about homeopathy either, and the idea of diluting dangerous chemicals in order to cure stuff with at least seemed credible. And some of the stuff sold as homeopathy actually is more like that.

    But it’s a no true scottsman thing. Because if it’s anything other than water, it’s not technically homeopathy.

    When people explained that to me, I was surprised to learn that there’s a whole bunch of people out there who are fully aware of this and still actually believe it works.

    The funny thing is that if you explain the dilution problem to someone who’s already used homeopathy (and convinced themselves it works), the urge to not admit they’ve fooled themselves because of the (by now pretty well known) placebo effect is so big they’ll insist that perhaps science has it wrong rather than they themselves (because, they’ve seen it work!!1 PROOF!!).

  14. See, I didn’t think Skept-artist’s example was all that rude. The way I figure it, if someone is going to make an asinine assertion publicly, they’re opening themselves up for a response. And as TJ said, “Ridicule is he only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them…”
    Personally, I tend toward non-confrontation IRL, and generally just ignore crap like that. But sometimes it just begs to be addressed and pointing out the ridiculousness of it is a perfectly valid way to address it. IMHO YMMV #WhyYesIAmAnAsshole

  15. See this is a perfect direction for the thread to go, re: Homeopathy. I have recently learned that a relative of mine is using Homeopathy and she is interested in hearing more information from me. So I’m carefully planning the approach I take, because, while she takes Homeopathy, I have a feeling that the ‘Homeopathy = Natural’ thing is going on here. Also, She is awesome and I want her to be around for a long, long time.

    @CyberLizard: It might not seem too rude when you are reading it on the page, I can see that. I think a lot of folks here might not see it as rude. But in that situation, I certainly felt that I had been rude. The thing is, while she probably believed every word of what she said, I didn’t even get far enough into the conversation to know for sure. She might have been on the verge of saying “Nah! Just pullin’ yr chain. Who needs a beer?”
    And that’s the important part to me. I could have asked leading questions, I could have gotten her to think more about her assertion, or I could have just acted silly and played along for the fun of it.
    What I DO know is that, for me, my actions felt wrong. At that time, and in that teeny little apartment.

  16. @Skept-artist: Right, I wasn’t trying to imply that *for you* it wasn’t rude. That was just my interpretation. If everyone were like me, skeptical outreach would probably die writhing in agony. I’m of the opinion that we absolutely need many different types of communicators in our ranks. They all serve a slightly different purpose in achieving the overall goal. Short of molesting small children and claiming it’s done in the name of skepticism, I think the claims that anyone or any group is “hurting” skepticism are overblown. We need Skepchicks and we need hard-core scientists. We need unswerving rationalists and we need “peacemakers”. But mostly we really need moar boobies. Because that makes everyone’s lives better :-)

  17. @Elyse:

    Hey Elyse, how about a blog of tips/good questions for us Skepchicks to use when dealing with the non-skeptical woomeisters that will leave them feeling smarter (as per Jillian’s post)? @JillianSwift:

    Like Skept-artist I have left a few wounded behind me and would like to handle these conversations in a more positive way.

  18. @femmebieninformee:


    I’ve actually already set up next week’s rant to be a follow-up to this week’s.

    When I have a few minutes to breathe, I’ll try to put something together.

    (Has anyone heard? I’m busy lately? Should I mention it more?)

  19. @CyberLizard: Oh I know you weren’t trying to imply that. I should have used emoticons :) And I agree wholeheartedly in the ‘big tent’ approach that you advocate.

    @femmebieninformee: There’s a newish podcast called Actually Speaking that I just started listening to. It addresses exactly this sort of thing. The tag-line is something like “Want to promote Skepticism and still keep your friends? Me too. Let’s find out together.”

  20. I am not being paid to say the following:

    As an addendum, I’ve seen a little of Brian’s artwork and he is indeed very talented. Hire him.

    ( Brain, I forget, did we confirm the word “hire” or “pay?” )

  21. @marilove: This is really what gets me. “Oh, I didn’t know homeopathy was just water…” Well, um… how can you so steadfastly claim it works when you don’t even know what you’re talking about?

    I really shouldn’t have been so inflammatory, but I think people really should know what they put in their bodies and why and how it’s supposed to work. I ask the doctor these questions about my prescriptions, why wouldn’t I do the same for some “natural” remedy?

  22. @Elyse: I wish it were… oh, how I wish it were…

    A testimonial from the website:
    “My daughter and I first met Dr. Outten at the Kid’s Day America event where he was performing spinal screening on the kid’s that attended the event.

    My daughter was 5 and we had never considered treating her with chiropractic care. We had always consulted her pediatrician with her health concerns. Before we me Dr. Outten, my daughter was plagued with sinus problems, allergies, and respiratory problems, which were treated with multiple trips to the ER and lots of medications.

    We noticed that after about 3 months of care we were able to cut her medications in half. It was at the point that my daughter got her first and only flare-up. I consulted Dr. Outten and he said to just bring her in for a couple of extra adjustments that week. It was hard not to revert back to the medications, but we didn’t, we just brought her for two adjustments that week and by the weekend she was back to a normal 5 year old.

    It has now been 10 months and she is completely medication free and has only been sick that one time. The best part of having her under chiropractic has been seeing my little girl live her life to the fullest. When people ask me who is my daughters doctor is I tell them Dr. Outten.

    Sincerely, CM”

    Ugh… and then there’s this page about treating infants:

    It makes me want to cry… the site used to have a lot more about treating asthma and sinus problems, but has changed in the last year (hmmm… I wonder if it has anything to do with what’s going on across the pond). I have been racking my brain to think of a way to gently request that we not have him as a sponsor, but I really think I am the only one on the league that thinks he’s a bogus quack.

  23. @Photon Collector:

    It’s one thing to see “herbal” and “homeopathic” and “naturopathic” all mixed up in a health food store. I’m willing to bet most of the people that work there don’t know the difference, either. What gets me is that places like Walgreens and Wal-Mart put the herbal supplements in a separate aisle, but they put the homeopathic crap in with the actual medicines. I noticed that when I went looking for some over-the-counter allergy medicine when my prescription ran out, and I had to carefully read everything to make sure it wasn’t homeopathic. Grrr.

  24. There comes a point when someone is obviously only there to talk at you, not to listen, or try to gain understanding. Their whole purpose is to spout their rhetoric at you.

    That is the point when they should be ridiculed, mocked, and laughed at. The point where they’ve essentially admitted they’re not trying to have an intelligent conversation/discussion/debate.

    Ridicule is the only weapon that can be used against unintelligible propositions. -Thomas Jefferson

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