As you might know, for some three or more years, there has been a hot debate snapping and sizzling across the internet that is over how the reality-based community should treat the faith or fantasy-based community.
Some participants in that grand debate, such as PZ Meyers, want the reality-based community to take a gloves off approach when dealing with the fantasy-based community. That is, Meyers and others like him advocate pulling no punches when discussing the fantasy-based community. If the fantasy-based community says something that strikes them as stupid, then by all means they will call it “stupid” — if not actually call it somethings worse than “stupid” — and damn who they alienate.
On the other side of this debate over manners are folks such as Chris Mooney who believe the reality-based community should cushion its blows in polite language and gentle manners. Mooney and others like him seem to have the idea that honey catches more flies than vinegar. Their appeal to gentleness in dealing with the fantasy-based community is a matter of tactics for them.
This grand debate is remarkably wide ranging and encompasses every topic from the demeanor of the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc.) to whether it is permissible to call creationists, “liars”. I assure you that I have described the debate in superficial terms here. It actually involves more topics and points of view than I know how to sum up in a reasonably short blog post. However, I was reminded of the debate this evening when I was reading a post on Dana Hunter’s wonderfully snarky blog, En Tequila Es Verdad. The post was about an attack on Chris Mooney’s position (I’ll quote some of the attack here, in part to convey a sense of the debate):
Really – Mooney seems to have this very easily-triggered terror that a critical comment from one person about one other person will cause some terrible, general, societal harm. But is the structure really that fragile? Are cascades that easy to set off? PZ calls Collins a clown and, whammo, children flee biology class, and Congress passes laws making fuel economy a felony, and the glaciers melt and everybody dies.
After quoting the above attack in her post, Dana goes on to say, “…you can’t change the world without shaking people up.” She is, of course, quite right about that. At least, she’s right in a general sense. But I do believe she is wrong if she believes that critical comments about a person will in any way help persuade the criticized person of your point of view.
Put differently, you cannot reasonably expect to persuade someone of your point of view by criticizing or insulting them. If it ever happens that you do persuade them of your point of view while criticizing or insulting them, you certainly do not owe your success to your having criticized or insulted them. Those principles I confirmed while, some years ago, working in sales and marketing. As I wrote to Dana:
When I was in sales, I learned that insulting the person you were trying to persuade to do something was an excellent way to loose the sale. I don’t suppose that’s very different for any kind of persuasion, whether it’s persuading people to buy soap or persuading them to accept evolution. If you insult them, you loose.
Consequently, I believe I have some good reason to be sympathetic to the Chris Mooney’s in the debate over how to treat the fantasy-based community. So far as I understand that side, Mooney and others like him want to win the hearts and minds of the fantasy-based community. That is, they are after making converts to the reality-based community. Moreover, they are realistic enough to know that insulting people is a good way to alienate them. Hence, they don’t want to insult anyone, if they can help it.
On the other hand, there’s a whole other way to look at his issue. That is, we can look at the issue from the standpoint of which way of approaching the fantasy-based community best pumps up our morale. It is more morale-boosting to treat them with kid gloves or more morale-boosting to treat them with gloves off? That’s a legitimate question because, in the battle between the reality-based community and the fantasy-based community, winning converts is not the only thing that matters. Keeping up morale on your own side matters too.
So far as I see it, folks like PZ Meyers and others who advocate a gloves off approach are not in the persuasion business, but in the morale boosting business. They are preaching to the choir. It’s highly unlikely that PZ Meyers has a conversion rate in excess of a tiny fraction of a percent. But it’s also highly likely that he does wonders for the morale of the people on his side.
That, at least, is how I see things.