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?


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