A rhetorical riff on the Don’t Be a Dick speech

(cross-posted at Skepticality.com)

TAM 2013 is upon us. The Amazing Meeting is the premier conference devoted to critical thinking and what is known primarily as “scientific skepticism,” a phrase which, though I share an enthusiasm for science with my fellow skeptics–hell, I even went to SpaceCamp–I believe is slightly misleading, and which conceptually shuts out a consideration of the role of critical thinking in the humanities. It is encouraging, then, to see that the James Randi Educational Foundation has made a point of inviting philosophers, literary scholars, historians, and artists to participate prominently in this year’s celebration of reason; this year’s keynote speaker is Susan Jacoby, who has written numerous cultural histories. As a sort of celebration of the humanities, skepticism and the Amazing Meeting, I’d like to take a look at one of the most talked about bits of public oratory to come out of TAM in the last several years, Phil Plait’s so-called “Don’t Be a Dick” speech. And we’ll see where it takes us.

The talk was actually titled, “The Goal of Skepticism,” and the message Phil wanted to deliver was essentially that skeptical activism is ultimately about long-term objectives, not about scoring cheap points in the short term, but I think that most people will remember that it as a speech about persuasion: How, he asks his audience, were you persuaded to embrace critical thinking? The art of skillful persuasion, or rhetoric, was at the center of education throughout Western history. At the inception of democracy, the Greek thinkers realized that active participation in public life would entail engineering consensus, and that it was vital for society to produce public figures who would be able to craft policies for the benefit of the polis and then persuade the masses to adopt those policies. Creating this type of public figure was the endpoint of most formal education for two thousand years. There were a number of models for what the ideal practitioner of rhetoric would be. The model that won out was the one proposed and promoted by Isocrates; someone who embodied the ideals and knowledge of a culture, who used broad learning to create arguments that were well-suited to the occasion. His model of the ideal rhetorician influenced the later Roman rhetorics of Cicero and perhaps more importantly Quintilian, whose Insitutio Oratoria has had some currency ever since humanists rediscovered it in the early 15th century. To Quintilian, the ideal rhetorician reflected the idea of the vir bonus, dicendi peritus, “the good man speaking well,” though in the modern era we’d modify that to the good person communicating well.

The arguments that Phil makes in his 30-minute talk draw heavily on the rhetorical tradition and reiterate some of its most important lessons, even if he’s unaware of it. Students of classical rhetoric (and high school debate club veterans) will recognize the three persuasive appeals that are available to the rhetorician or orator, logos (the appeal to evidence and reason), pathos (the appeal to emotion), and ethos (the appeal to the character of the person speaking). Any one of these elements of argument may be persuasive, which, it should be noted, is not the same thing as “leading toward truth.” Usually, all three operate to some degree in a successful argument. Part of what Phil calls “this art of ours,” persuasive skeptical outreach, is to balance these persuasive elements effectively.

Skeptics are all about the logos, baby. We want good evidence, and we want to follow it to its logical conclusion. When a skeptic meets, say, a moon hoaxer, I think the first instinct is to dismantle their arguments point by point and rebuild the hoaxer’s understanding with better arguments and better facts. But Phil points out that this generally unproductive, because it is hard to reason someone out of a position that they have reached irrationally. This means that we need to employ the other appeals. And Phil focuses on ethos, the character of the speaker as revealed through the speech. When the message is a difficult sell, such as giving up god or abandoning the comforts of magical thinking, the character of the speaker takes on special importance. Don’t be a dick. Cicero couldn’t have said it better himself, though he probably would have said, “Noli mentula.”

Perhaps the most important lesson that Phil tries to impart in terms of effective communication is to try and see the world from the perspective of your audience. When I teach about how audience influences message, I usually ask students how would they describe nuclear war to children. Then I show them the old 1950s civil defense film Duck and Cover, and you can see how the message has been tailored to a young audience. They leave out the most horrible parts, they’ve left out the bits about how their parents will be vaporized and how the survivors will long for death, and instead describe the effects of the nuclear flash like a very very bad sunburn, something that kids will understand. Phil’s analysis of audience is actually, for an old rhetorician like me, rather refreshing, as he applies empirically derived considerations to the evaluation of his audience; for instance, the observation that countering misinformation can paradoxically reinforce the prior flawed beliefs. He also brings foregrounds the fact that magical thinking is something that human brains do as a matter of course.

My favorite bit of the presentation, actually, is what Phil does with an aphorism. Rhetoricians from the classical period up through the Renaissance deliberately cultivated stores of standard tropes that they could employ and adopt for any occasion. These, I think, are a remnant of a preliterate oral tradition, when all knowledge had to be stored not in writing, but inside the heads of people who were actively using the knowledge; in these “primary oral cultures”, people had to think memorable thoughts and repeat them out loud if the ideas were to be preserved. Aphorisms and cliches are efficient vehicles of conveying information down through generations (as are story story and song). In one sense, aphoristic “common sense” is an important part of building a community on common assumptions. In the skeptics subculture, sayings like “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and “alternative medicine that’s been proven to work is called medicine,” and “what is asserted without evidence may be dismissed without evidence” are just a couple of these skeptical commonplaces. Sagan made a point of coining them by the dozen precisely because they are memorable. Phil brings up the aphorism that “the plural of anecdote is not data,” clearly a rhetorical feature that hearkens back to preliterate conventions. Then he does something that is decidedly literate by altering it, saying, when you take the anecdotes of a thousand skeptics and none of them became critical thinkers because of verbal abuse, you have data. In preliterate cultures, where the preservation of knowledge is an imperative, constancy is valued. When ideas can be stored outside of your head, as in literate societies, suddenly novelty becomes valued. Yes, literacy means that you have the mental resources free to have new types of ideas, record those new ideas in a permanent medium, and build a cumulative store of knowledge that is fixed and can be built upon. And this is why literacy makes science possible. For more on this topic, I recommend Walter Ong’s classic Orality and Literacy.

We’ll see you at TAM. Eve Siebert and I will both be on the skepticism across the curriculum workshop; Eve will be giving a paper on Sunday about how young earth creationists ruin everything; and I’ll be on the science-based medicine panel.



3 Responses to A rhetorical riff on the Don’t Be a Dick speech

  1. Goran Hammarstrom says:

    Dear Bob, I read with profit what you said about the skeptical orientation. Has it been well defined? May I try to explain how I understand it?
    It is a kind of critique with a special focus. It does not concern the following things: (1) Minor errors such as typographical errors, in- correct quotations or occasional wrong conclusions. (2) Nonsensical texts. Some texts are so weird that one cannot debate them ration- ally. Mark Newbrook’s new book contains hundreds of examples of this kind. He thinks he comments on them in his capacity of skep- tical linguist. I would rather think that his critique is not skeptical because the examples are nonsensical. Their truth cannot be de- bated, only rejected.
    The topic of a skeptical discussion must be important. (I will not try to define important here.)
    So a skeptical discussion does not concern minor problems but the problems are debatable and important.
    The mainstream idea is assumed to be correct and the criticised idea is incorrect. Over time the latter idea will probably disappear. The development is a (the correct idea) > a b (incorrect idea) > a. However, the new idea, which is at first considered to be incorrect could later be shown to be superior and survive alone: a > a b > b.
    The term skeptical seems to be unfortunate because it involves the idea of doubt while it is rather a question of rejecting a strange in- correct idea.
    Goran Hammarstrom

  2. Joshua Meyer says:

    Hi Bob,

    Just thought I’d drop by and tell you that I’ve been really enjoying your segments on the Skepticality podcast. I have just listened to the latest one (concerning this post on the ‘Don’t be a Dick’ speech) and found it entertaining and insightful. Thanks for doing what you’re doing and please keep it up!

    • Bob says:


      Thanks for the feedback! It’s rewarding to hear that at least one person likes it. 🙂 Sorry it took so long to get back to you. Was TAMming it and all. 🙂


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