Fantasy Based Community, Intellectual, Intelligentsia, Liars Lies and Lying, Politics, Reality Based Community, Society, Teaching

Selling and Snark

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.

23 thoughts on “Selling and Snark”

  1. I disagree with several points about the motives and approach of the “New Atheists”–I hate that term. I propose a possible motive which differs substantially from that which you are proposing. Treating an idea as anything sacred or above criticism does nothing for a debate or discussion; it’s a way to lose an argument. If you’re trying to SELL something to someone, you are correct, but this isn’t about sales, it’s about science and evidence. There are some fields of science which are being actively expanded, and these are subject to informed debate between hypotheses and conflicting data (usually the result of a lack thereof); the keyword here is “informed.”

    When a religious individual tells me drawing a picture of someone takes away part of their soul, I should laugh at them. When a religious individual says their deity of choice brought forth the universe in one great sneeze, I should laugh at them. When they want to use this to limit art classes to inanimate objects or alter science classes to teach the “big sneeze” conjecture, then one should react with indignation.


  2. It’s good to see you Jared! Unfortunately, I’m not sure I at all understand you. Are you claiming that loosing an argument is in some significant sense different from failing to persuade someone to accept your point of view? Or that winning an argument is significantly different from persuading someone to accept your point of view? If so, what do you mean by “to lose an argument”?


  3. I used the “lose an argument” as in “losing an argument before you start.” Avoiding an idea which is the crux of a disagreement because it is somehow above discussion is, tautologically, to concede to your opponent some area which is beyond criticism. If this subject beyond criticism is the cause of the problem, as with gay rights opponents, evolution deniers, and all other anti-science positions, then you have already lost by failing to address it.

    Additionally, many of these discussions take place in public fora with the target individuals being the observers, to lose these discussions is to fail to convince these observers rather than the opponent. I can sum it up rather simply: it’s not sales, it’s politics.


  4. Thanks for the clarification, Jared. I suspect you might be a bit more familiar with what’s going on in this debate between the reality based community and the fantasy based community than I am because I have been largely absent from reading many blogs for the past year. But are you certain that Chris Mooney and others like him are advocating placing certain subjects beyond criticism? I was under the impression that they merely wanted to avoid rude and obnoxious criticisms, but that they were all in favor of freely criticizing anything and everything that merits criticism. If they do indeed believe some subjects should be “hands off”, then that’s where they and I part company.

    Of course, in intellectual debates, the observers — and not usually the participants themselves — are the targets of any real attempts to persuade people to ones point of view. I have participated in enough intellectual debates in my time to know full well that the participants rarely persuade each other.

    …it’s not sales, it’s politics.

    Those words leave me confused, Jared. Are you actually suggesting that the techniques of persuasion employed in sales and marketing are in any way significantly different than the techniques of persuasion employed in politics? Because I’m under the very strong impression that the very same techniques are used in both fields.


  5. Great post! You broke this issue down wonderfully, and I must say your writing is outstanding! I think you’re right to point out the difference between persuasion and morale-boosting, without necessarily dismissing the merits of good ol’ fashioned morale-boosting.

    I suppose Christopher Hitchens would be way, way over on the ‘morale-boosting’ side of things…


  6. Thank you for your very kind words, Freyguy! I confess I haven’t read enough of Hitchens to have formed an honest opinion about whether he’s on the morale-boosting side of things, but I will take your word that he is.

    What strikes me as strange is the reaction some people have to Richard Dawkins. So far as I can see, the man is a quite reasonable person who is anything but rabid. Yet, he is repeatedly attacked by believers for what they assert is his extremism. I just don’t see them as anywhere near to the mark in their criticisms of him.


  7. I try not to be rude or insulting to anyone I encounter. Why would I abandon that effort because a person is religious? Using a person’s religious stance to justify treating them with a lack of respect is really no different than one religious person treating someone else poorly for having the wrong religion, or no religion, or being gay.

    I agree, many tenets of religion are ridiculous. I agree that religious people often behave contrary to their beliefs, and they often treat others badly due to a disagreement of theology. Why should I behave like them?

    But then, I’m Canadian.


  8. Except for a spattering of scientists, analysts, etc. the reality based community does not seem all that realistic to me.

    The credit crunch, stock market, housing market, use of fossil fuels, shipping jobs overseas, entertainment industry, our healthcare system, etc.

    These are not the signs of people who are reality based.


  9. I believe that the use of the terms “fantasy-based” and “reality based” are a matter of perspective. All the EVIDENCE that those who think they are reality-based use to create solid beliefs were placed there by God.

    The dinosaurs and fossils were part of the original plan as were all the scientific EVIDENCE the “reality-based” will say prove they figured it all out. Dinosaurs never existed and fossil fuel has always been just oil. It was never alive. Regardless of what the New Atheists discover or feel that they have proven, the only thing they have proven is that they will gladly accept any logical scientific discovery to reject God.

    God made fossils so that very intelligent humans would have the opportunity to accept Him or discover another explanation. There was never a link to miss but soon the “missing link” will always be accepted as missing or may even be found. It will prove absolutely nothing except that there are people who needed to find it to reject divinity so God gave them the option to accept Him through faith or prove their fantasy-world “real” enough to reject Him.

    Sorry it seems God built Earth with a built-in trap to allow scientists to “prove” God doesn’t exist. It was required to ensure faith remained the only motivation for even the most intelligent.

    Nothing evolves. Dinosaurs never existed, Oil has always been oil and not a fossil. The speed of light is not the same for all light. Nothing will ever prove God does not exist but might prove God created a perfect trap the smartest humans would discover and accept if they wanted.

    Diamonds have always been diamonds and were created so that accepting creation could either be hard as a diamond or easy with simple faith.


  10. Kysha, I agree. I think the name, “reality-based community”, is problematic. Besides that, I ran across someone yesterday who casually asserted that the political elites in America were members of the reality based community. That certainly struck me as wishful thinking. How many messes is this country currently in because of our leadership?


  11. Hi Grasshopper! Welcome to the blog!

    Those are wise words. Do you find that it is more difficult to be polite than it is to be rude? I often do. To me, it’s challenging to be polite, but not so challenging to be rude.


  12. I think the fundamental point of the “Gnu atheists,” as PZ now calls the poorly defined and possibly nonexistent group, is to treat religious claims just as we would treat any other claims. Making the statement, for example, that women wearing flattering attire causes earthquakes, as one cleric recently did, the “new atheists” (Actually just Jennifer McCreight) will test this by putting out a call for women everywhere to dress scantily and then monitor the results via NOAA earthquake reports; test the hypothesis, as it were. If a Catholic priest makes the claim homosexuality increases violent crimes, then a statistical comparison between areas with low open homosexuality (such as Jacksonville, Florida where discrimination based on sexual orientation is not prohibited) with regions of relatively high instance of open homosexuality (such as San Francisco) should indicate increased crime; they do not, (compare them for yourself) and thus, the hypothesis fails.

    The “framing” approach is one of not discussing these blatantly falsifiable ideas and instead trying to use salesmanship to “win” the hearts and minds of the audience. Studies have been done on “framing science” and these studies indicate that while “framing” works better in the short term, the effect wears off rather rapidly, while jolting someone with cut and dry points which they find offensive is more effective in the long run.

    Personally, I usually find the “argument for civility” as a form of logical fallacy. It is used by someone when an opponent presents evidence contrary to a claim which the individual cannot refute, and thus finds offensive. Examples include the anti-vaccine crowd which pulls nothing but refuted, bunk, and anecdotal accounts and uses them as valid evidence. When these are pointed out to have been refuted by X, Y, and Z, often the response is an argument for civility. My example on this is from experience; my younger sister has extreme scholiosis and Ehlers-Danlos, so I was in contact with the parents of autistic children quite more than I would have liked and encounter the “chelation works when they get about 15 years old” and “the vaccines made our kids autistic because it was diagnosed right after they had the vaccines” ignoring whole swathes of evidence which indicates vaccines (particularly thiomersal) does not cause autism, is readily removed from the body, and is in such low levels that even methyl-mercury at those levels would not be toxic.

    Don’t get me wrong, I won’t go (very far) out of my way to offend someone; I don’t know of anyone that would; the most PZ will do is something very simple and symbolic (such as burying a bible and qur’an making sure every page gets soiled or putting a nail through a piece of unleavened bread–I think the nail may have made it taste better–and throwing it in the trash rather nonchalantly) which is highly offensive. I have, on numerous occasions, told the campus preachers that I wasn’t interested in any cult so fascinated with death (and kept walking). My girlfriend frequently, and enthusiastically, points out that pregnancy is a sexually transmitted disease to the women in long dresses with more than 8 children. The most offensive thing, however, is that I do a considerable deal of IT work for high schools (quite a bit of which is pro bono), some of which are private Catholic schools. I frequently know more about their religion than they do (even two of the priests have said as much), and most will never know I am not Catholic; some may discover it on their own, and thus, the offensiveness will then be all the greater.

    Small, simple, and perhaps shocking statements or actions do jolt people into thinking. Isn’t that, in the end, what we are trying to do?

    Sorry for this being so long, I haven’t written in quite some time, so I have much to say about this subject, just too busy to actually do so. I’m currently doing IT contracting for 3 schools all over the state and 2 banks as well as helping start an electric car manufacturing company in New Orleans…I really want to get back to blogging when things calm down.


  13. To be honest I don’t see the point in debating with people who are just going to ignore evidence and factual information, a brick wall would be far more receptive of your comments. It still amazes me that people even think there IS a debate over evolution for example, over this side of the ocean (UK) it is something that was put to rest a long time ago. No teachers or schools would dream of not teaching it.

    To sum up the wilfully ignorant are not worth my time and shouldn’t be worth any of yours either.


  14. “Curtis, do you find it as fascinating as I do that you and I couldn’t disagree more than we do?” – Paul Sandstone.

    I find it extremely interesting that you are more logically motivated than most inflicted with above what is considered high intellect.

    Evidence and factual information told my spouse that I would die when the respirators were removed after six weeks and two days non-responsive in a coma.

    Evidence and factual information advised my parents that I would die due to infections two years later.

    Evidence and factual information caused the doctors to advise me that I would not be able to get out of bed for the rest of my life.

    Evidence and factual information cause judges to finally recognize that “the Internet” has been wire communications as defined on page eight in paragraph (51) of the Communications Act of 1934 since long before ‘Al Gore’ or others invented the Internet.

    Evidence and factual information control applications of law much better than they control reality. Non-theist are usually better lawyers.

    Yes, Mr Sunstroke, I am amazed at the Intellect you have and the evidence and factual information that I must deny to believe the existing evidence is nothing but another excuse God created to test those of us with extreme intellect.

    I am alive today due to a miracle that science will never understand. I have experienced the “after-life” or imagined one while in a coma? I chose to return when given the choice and hope that I would have returned even if I had known I would exist as I do now.

    I would value your opinion greatly on (5:09-cv-05151) if you would consider the 4th replacement complaint as is now before the Western District United States Court and the Supreme Court. Your purely logical opinion based exclusively on fact would be worth a great deal to me. The case resolving will impact you directly in all probability.


  15. Having been slammed about a goodly bit, I am very much in the harsh reality camp and I am also rather prone to blunt language.

    People are dying miserably around the world, and idiots want to be polite.

    I have no patience with the concept of polite.


  16. If you want to ‘win,’ if you want to make the best come back, if you want to look cool and have all your friends agree with you, if that is your goal, insult people. If you want to feel some morbid sense of pleasure at another person’s embarrassment, discomfort, or anger, insult people.

    I’ve done it. I’ve wanted to get that morbid sense of pleasure. I’ve wanted to seem ‘cool’ with my snarkiness.

    But, it won’t get you anywhere, in terms of ‘changing hearts and minds.’ People will automatically shut down from listening and go into a defensive mode. That’s just how it is.


  17. Thank you for the welcome, Paul.

    In answer to your question, I have the unusual affliction of finding it harder to be rude than polite. Not due to any positive character traits mind you, mainly because of my upbringing. I am good at hiding my annoyance. There are good and bad things about that, of course, but I really do think that aggression begets aggression. I don’t see the point of it. If a person has been suspending disbelief all this time, my evidence and facts aren’t going to make a dent. Looks like there’s a case in point in this very comment thread.


  18. While I find a great many of these commenters to have some good points, I still cannot get away from the fact that my own disenchantment came neither from the accomodationists, nor from the gnu atheists, but from the religious. Indeed the sheer volume and diversity of people all claiming the “one true religion(tm)” should be enough for anyone to see through the very thin veil. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take every opportunity to express our disapproval, while we still can!


  19. I’m apparently late to the party here… The only thing I can add to this, as with most debates, neither side can see the value of the other. Both think they only way is THEIR way. Which makes little sense.

    PZ Myers and others like him are important because they give strength and purpose to those of us afraid to say we are an atheist and speak out. And despite what some think people are persuaded by being called an idiot. I reevaluate my positions all the time when someone tells me it doesn’t make sense or says, here is another piece of evidence, or you realize that is stupid right. At the face of it if PZ were to say some idea I have is stupid he is not attacking me, but my idea. I realize he has called people dumb and stupid before, but essentially it is for those ideas people have that are obviously wrong.

    Mooney fills a niche as well in that some people are only persuaded by the nicest individuals. So for PZ or anyone else to say their ideas of how to argue are worthless are missing the larger picture. I’m not necessarily one of these people but I know some that are. Conversely for Mooney to say that his ideas are the only way is just as nonsensical.

    What we really need are for these two sides of this worthless debate, to stop focusing on each other and instead work on getting their messages across. By saying to one group, shut up you’re doing it wrong, you essentially stifle debate completely and make everyone on both sides look somewhat incompetent. You also stifle discussion between atheists and the religious which both sides probably do not want. I think this is the reason why a lot of people became disenfranchised with Mooney and some with PZ. Not to mention the book Mooney helped author on this subject was very poorly accepted across the board. That should of been a sign that Mooney should have just moved on and just focus on his own work instead of starting a huge stink over the whole thing.


  20. Panda, it is idealistic to assume that we on this side of the pond are in a position to ignore the fantasy based community in this country. They have way too much power to ignore. Our only realistic option is to oppose their nonsense.


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