Don’t be a Dick, 18th Century style

I talked a bit about the whole “Don’t be a Dick” issue that started (this time around) with Phil Plait’s welcome address at TAM 8 ( and I concluded that, for me, I preferred to think that it should really be something more like don’t be a dick unless you’re talking to a dick.  Phil’s talk spawned numerous responses on the web that were for and against his message, and every stance in between.  If there is anything that the talk showed, it was that the skeptical movement has a similar cross-section of personality types as does the general population.  In short, we have some people who don’t mind being argumentative and strident, and some who don’t like the confrontational style, and a whole lot of people in between.  Which, I guess, means that nobody is right and nobody is wrong.

What is wrong, in my opinion, is in picking the targets incorrectly.  Sure, send PZ or Richard Dawkins after the Ken Hams of the world.  But send the Phil Plaits and Chris Mooneys of the movement to talk to moderates.  Match the weapon to the target and thereby make all the different weapons valid.

This has been percolating in my brain since TAM 8 and I was delighted recently to see this topic addressed by a very wise man.  As I am not a great confrontationalist (I know, not a word), I am going to try to follow his example.  I don’t think it is the easiest way to counter non-critical thinking, but I do think it can be very effective.

From his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin’s words on not being a dick:

While I was intent on improving my language, I met with an English grammar (I think it was Greenwood’s), at the end of which there were two little sketches of the arts of rhetoric and logic, the latter finishing with a specimen of a dispute in the Socratic method; and soon after I procur’d Xenophon’s Memorable Things of Socrates, wherein there are many instances of the same method. I was charm’d with it, adopted it, dropt my abrupt contradiction and positive argumentation, and put on the humble inquirer and doubter. And being then, from reading Shaftesbury and Collins, become a real doubter in many points of our religious doctrine, I found this method safest for myself and very embarrassing to those against whom I used it; therefore I took a delight in it, practis’d it continually, and grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions, the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved.

I continu’d this method some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or, I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken. This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engag’d in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure. For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent a candid attention. If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error. And by such a manner, you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire.

Worked for him, didn’t it?


Lesson Learned?

With the BP rig disaster, Toyota recalling vehicles for multiple reasons, issues with our local Metro system, and many other items in the news lately, I was reminded of this, probably the most ironic example of the failure of adhering to good engineering practice.  I don’t think it hurts to be reminded of these things once in a while.

Science and Engineering this weekend

Just a reminder for those of you in the DC area that there will be a science and engineering festival on the Mall this weekend.  Here is the link to more information:

I hope to make it down there to see, at the very least, the design mockup of the Planetary Society’s Lightsail spacecraft (link), and the wonderful hosts of Astronomy Cast, Dr. Pamela Gay and Fraser Cain (

Should be a great weekend to celebrate science and engineering.  Join us.


Okay, I’m going to go a bit off topic here, but I think it is important and it is tangential to engineering in terms of quality mass production (which I won’t get into) and the mis-calculation of risk.

In short, vaccines work.  They have for a couple hundred years.  They have prevented the deaths of millions of people and continue to do so.  There is overwhelming scientific proof of their effectiveness.

And yet there is a growing sector of the population who are against vaccinations and distrust the authorities who develop, offer, and administer them.  They have no scientific basis for their position.  And while I have to assume that a good percentage of those people are merely misinformed, the rest appear to be anti-educational, delusional, close-minded, stubborn, attention-seeking troublemakers who don’t mind risking the health of themselves and others for no good reason but their own deluded ideas.

As far as risk, it is true that not all vaccines are 100% effective, and that there have been complications with vaccines in the past (no, not autism).  But the benefits so greatly outweigh the risks that anyone who doesn’t vaccinate their children (at least) is, in my opinion, a dangerous fool.  This was elegantly presented by Penn and Teller on their show, BullShit:

This visual of comparative risks may not be precise, but it is memorable.  And it is something that needs to be said to at least that ignorant sector of the anti-vacc movement.  And if they need data, there is plenty of it.  If they need numbers for the risks, easy enough.  And if they need encouragement from people they trust, here is something to start with from Benjamin Franklin, written sometime between 1771 and 1788 – over 220 years ago when the risks of such procedures [inoculation of small pox by skin irritation] were much, much greater than they are now [only dead viruses used now].  And yet he came to understand the relative risks [2% vs 14 to 20% mortality]:

In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the small-pox, taken in the common way.  I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation.

This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.

For more information, see your doctor or go to reputable and truthful sites such as the CDC.