Sheep and Cats

One expression I’ve heard a lot lately (most recently at TAM 8) is “herding cats”. As in, organizing skeptics/atheists is like herding cats. The implication in most cases was that this makes us nearly impossible to organize into groups.

I think this conclusion is unwarranted. The reason it’s easy to herd sheep (or cattle, or other herd animals) is that they tend to stick together and do things as a group. So all you need to do is get a leader or bellwether to go where you want, and all the others will follow, because everyone else is doing it. In other words, proverbial sheep feel strong peer pressure, while proverbial cats feel very little.

But it doesn’t follow from this that cats can’t be directed where you want them to go. Rather, you need a different approach. It’s not that proverbial cats are contrarians who refuse to do what every other cat is doing; rather, it’s that they don’t give a damn what the other cats are doing, and will go where they like, for their own reasons.

If you’ve ever had a cat, you know that all that’s necessary to summon it is to make the sound of a can opener, or shake the can of treats, or open the laundry dryer. In other words, you have to give the cat a reason to come, other than “I said so”. This approach scales well: shaking the can of treats can summon five cats as easily as one. Each one makes an individual decision to go where the treats are, regardless of what the other four are doing.

And that’s presumably what happened at TAM: 1300 people, who would respond to “Come on! Everyone else is going!” with a shrug and a “So what?”, looked at the program and individually made a decision that that’s where they wanted to be. The same thing happens at any number of smaller associations.

In other words, you can’t herd cats by pushing them. But you can gather them in groups by inviting them, by giving each one a reason to show up.

And by the way, I see a parallel between this and the following: why is it that “Everybody knows that this country was founded on Christian principles, so that’s what we should teach in schools” is an argumentum ad populum fallacy, while “99% of biologists accept evolution, so that’s what we should teach in schools” isn’t?

In the first case, people’s ideas are not independent, but rather influenced — and perhaps determined — by those of the people around them. In general, ideas can spread not because they’re true, but because they’re popular. In the second case, for the most part, every biologist has been exposed to the evidence for evolution, and ideally has come to an independent conclusion. That is, the first conclusion is popular because it’s popular. The second conclusion is popular because there are lots of ways to look at the evidence, and they all point to the same conclusion.

On the other hand, choreographing cats, now that’s a challenge.

TAM 8 Miscellanea

Some notes I jotted down during talks at TAM 8:

My wife and I have an agreement: if Brian Williams ever becomes single, she gets to leave me and marry him. And if Rachel Maddow ever… um, changes her mind… then I get to marry her.
— Hal Bidlack(?)

I’m a vegetarian zombie. I only eat rotten fruit.
— Joe Nickell

At the Q&As after talks, most people would introduce themselves by giving their name and employer. But one person prefaced his question with:

Hello. My name would waste valuable time, and where I work is embarrassing.

Paul Provenza on George W. Bush:

He’s like a low-rent antichrist: two sixes and a five.

He thinks history will vindicate him. Who does he think he is, The Velvet Underground?

He also mentioned getting into a fight with a network censor who allowed a sketch that made fun of God, but not one about Jesus, because:

You can make fun of God, because he doesn’t exist. But you can’t make fun of Jesus, because he’s God’s son.

I’d brought Richard Dawkins’s The Greatest Show on Earth to read on the plane.* Colour plates 18-19 show a map of the Earth’s tectonic plates, including one labeled “Philippine Plate”.

So of course, given my precedent of having people sign books they didn’t write, I had to get Phil Plait to sign it:

* I didn’t get to read much of it on the way over, though: I didn’t get an assigned seat in advance for the flight from Detroit to Las Vegas, so instead of getting an aisle seat like I’d wanted, I got stuffed next to two Chinese young men in the very last row, by the window, the complete opposite of where I wanted to be.

But during the hustle and bustle of people competing to see how much crap can be shoved into an overhead bin without making the fuselage bulge, a Chinese man asked me if I’d be willing to trade seats with him so that he could sit with his sons. He even apologized that his was an aisle seat instead of the window that I so obviously wanted. I thanked him, and we traded.

When I got to my new seat, there was someone already in it, chatting up the good-looking lady in the middle seat. He went back to his seat in the row behind. A few moments later, a young woman from the row behind came up and swapped places with the lady the guy had been chatting up.

So my new seat neighbor turned out to be a geologist on her way to TAM. I suppose if we weren’t headed for the same convention on skepticism and rational thinking, it would’ve been easy to invoke mystical forces of fate or destiny. But of course that would’ve been silly.

At any rate, she was a better conversationalist than Dawkins’s book, so I didn’t get as much reading done as I’d thought.

Some More on Not Being a Dick

In an earlier post, I talked about Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” talk at TAM 8.

This time, I want to look at the other side of that. To the question “does this mean we have to be boring lecturers all the time?”, I hope to answer “No”.

After all, we talk and write for all sorts of different reasons. Not all of us can, or want to be, teachers. Nor is that all that our readers want to read. FSM knows I enjoy reading Phil Plait and Ed Yong, but I’d go spare if those were the only voices on my side on the Internet. I also want there to be George Hrabs, Roy Zimmermans, Christopher Hitchenses, Hunters, and so on. And let’s face it: a good rant is fun to read.

For one thing, there’s a vast difference between being frank, direct, or blunt; and being a dick. Dawkins’s The God Delusion was frank and direct, but by no means would I say he was being a dick. Carl Sagan talked unapologetically about the size and age of the universe, and the relative insignificance of humanity in all that. But, again, not a dick.

Yes, you may say, a lot of people took offense at Dawkins, particularly for his “the God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction” comment. Of course, since what he wrote is true in all its particulars, one can only assume that the people who take offense haven’t read the Bible (teachable moment!), or know that Dawkins is right, but think it’s rude of him to point it out.

So by all means, say what you think.

Yes, people may be offended, but that’s because a) no one likes being told that they’re wrong, and b) a lot of people identify themselves by their religion or form of woo. If you say that astrology is stupid, what a lot of people will hear is that people who believe in astrology are stupid. This shouldn’t necessarily stop you, but of course it’s something to keep in mind.

One rule that I try to apply is: imagine that you’re in the future, after the woo that you’re railing against has gone the way of phlogiston and leeching, and that you’re rereading what you once wrote. Were you standing up for reality, or were you being an asshole? Was your reaction warranted, or did you go over the top? It might be instructive to revisit old arguments you’ve had some years ago — particularly religious or political ones — to see how they’ve stood the test of time, and what you now think of your former self. Now that the election’s over, do you still think it was right to call your opponent a retarded fascist, or whatever you said?

Another important thing to keep in mind is that most of the people who believe in woo simply don’t know any better. When Richard Dawkins said that “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid, or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that)”, I’m pretty sure that in his mind, 90+% of creationists fell into the “ignorant” category, i.e., they’re not familiar with the mountains of evidence supporting evolution. At least, that’s been my experience. I suspect that the same is true of other forms of woo.

I’m always careful to distinguish between ignorance and stupidity. If I’m ignorant, that just means there’s something I don’t know. We’re all ignorant. I’m ignorant of economics, Japanese history, watercolor painting techniques, nuclear physics, and much more. There are a lot of interesting things I’d like to learn, but haven’t, because I’ve been busy learning even more interesting things.

With that in mind, remember that the next believer in woo that you talk to is almost certainly not someone cynically peddling bullshit to make a buck. They just don’t know any better. They may have been “cured” by homeopathy or crystal healing or seen their luck improve after installing feng shui carpeting, or their aunt swears by her echinacea suppositories, or whatever.

So at least at first, try to be a nice guy. Explain that they’re mistaken, or misinterpreted what they saw, or may not be remembering correctly, or were missing some crucial facts, or whatever.

At that point, one of several things might happen. The person might learn something from your comments, in which case you’ve passed by the chance for a good rant, but you’ve made the world a better place. Or they might disagree in an nontrivial and non-stupid way, which gives you the chance to have an interesting discussion. Or they might just go away, in which case they never would have seen your fantastic ass-searing rant anyway.

Or they might disregard everything you’ve said and refuse to understand your explanations or follow your links, calling your sources corporate shills or tools of Satan or whatever the fashionable epithet is these days. This constitutes moving toward willful ignorance. Or they might insult you, and call you a corporate shill of Satan or thimerosal douchenozzle. In other words, they might be a dick to you first.

At this point, you can tell yourself that “moral high ground” is a relative position, pour a gallon of cobra venom into the metaphor generator, and let loose. Just try to be less of a dick than the other person. There’s nothing wrong with defending yourself. But the longer you can be the soul of kindness and put off your righteous ire, the more opportunities you give the other person to shoot themselves in the foot, and the better you’ll look in the eyes of the other people following the thread (and you are playing to the audience, aren’t you?). Think of Tim Minchin’s Storm.

Alternately, you can jump to the defense of someone who’s being attacked unjustly. But again, be less of a dick than the person you’re responding to.

And then there are the times when you just need to vent at the stupidity and fuckedupedness of it all. In these cases, go after the people who really deserve it: the 2% or less who are either cynical manipulators, shameless profiteers, unobtainium-headed willful ignoramuses. Sylvia Browne; John Edward; the pope; Kent Hovind; Ray Comfort. They’ve been pushing their bullshit for years and made a pretty penny from it. They’re public figures. They’ve had every opportunity to learn better, but haven’t. Fuck ’em. They can take it.

But spare the children of hippies whose only crime was believing their parents when they said auras were real. There’s no shame in being fooled by a slick salesman, or by people who honestly believe a mistake, especially when those people are in a position of authority.

In short, I think there’s a lot of room for frank discourse — which I think is the usual euphemism for yelling at the other guy, or going on a tirade against frauds and charlatans — without being a dick. But yes, there are limits.

And as I said in the other post, don’t take my word for it. 80% of what I just said is probably wrong, and if you ever figure out which 80%, please let me know. And also, ask yourself whether what you’re about to say will do any good, or at least fail to do harm. Keep the end goal, whatever you envision it to be, in mind, and ask yourself whether you’re helping to move toward that goal.

The “Don’t Be A Dick” Heard Round the World

I feel chastised.

Undoubtedly the most controversial, most thought-provoking talk at TAM 8 was Phil Plait‘s “Don’t be a dick” talk, in which he decried what he sees as the rise of incivility in the skeptical blogosphere.

He wrote it down ahead of time so as not to ad lib and accidentally say something he didn’t mean, and since I have a recording of it, I should really quote him (slightly cleaned up) and not paraphrase, so as not to distort his meaning. I apologize in advance for the length of both the quotations and my response. To quote Blaise Pascal, I lack the time to make it shorter.

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